WebEx WebOffice: Collaboration Plus E-Mail

By Richard Morochove

WebEx’s WebOffice is a slick e-mail and collaborative online service designed to meet the needs of small businesses. While WebOffice does not deliver all the capabilities of Microsoft Office Live, it offers a sleek user interface with sophisticated collaboration capabilities.

The service appears to be designed for a more-established small business than Office Live targets, one that probably already has an online presence and is prepared to pay more to get the collaboration capabilities that it wants. WebOffice is an upgrade to services originally offered by Intranets.com, a company that WebEx acquired a couple of years ago. This heritage shows: WebOffice delivers a more polished user experience than that of Office Live, which only recently came out of beta test in the U.S.

E-Mail Added

WebOffice’s latest update adds e-mail capabilities to the suite, including those you would expect of any good e-mail client, such as a spelling checker. One way the service differs from free Web-based e-mail accounts aimed at individuals is that you can create public folders in order to share messages with other users or departments. WebOffice’s e-mail service also features antispam and antivirus administrative controls, which are essential these days.

WebOffice also supports contact, calendar, and task management; discussion boards; polls; expense reports; and databases. Many small businesses may find the service’s specialized databases to be most valuable feature. Database templates are available for asset management, customer relationship management, event registration, an in/out board, sales forecasting, time sheets, and more.

A link on the WebOffice site leads you to a page where you can sign up for a free trial of WebEx Meetings, the popular online meeting service. After the trial period, however, WebEx Meetings becomes an extra-cost service.

A Virtual Office

Collaboration using an online service like WebOffice isn’t quite like sharing documents on an internal LAN, but it can come close. For example, you can easily access documents in a WebOffice Web folder on your PC by creating a new Network Place in Windows. You can sync WebOffice information such as contacts, to-do lists, and appointments with Microsoft Outlook or a Palm-based handheld; you don’t have to be online to check on this information.

WebOffice does not offer some of Office Live’s features, such as Web site hosting and pay-per-click search-engine advertising. If an ISP or another service hosts your site and you want WebEx WebOffice to manage your e-mail, you will need to direct your domain’s MX (Mail Exchange) record to the WebEx server so it can handle your e-mail.

If you need PPC advertising to promote your site, you can sign up directly with Google AdWords, Yahoo Sponsored Search, or Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions.

Despite these deficiencies, many small businesses will find that the collaboration features in the WebOffice Suite are a better mix of services than what Microsoft’s high-end Office Live Premium offers for $40 per month. However, WebOffice is pricier.

WebOffice starts at $60 per month for up to five users with 250MB of shared data storage. Adding e-mail accounts (1GB capacity) for those users tacks on another $30 per month, after an introductory special price of $20. Charges apply for adding capacity to mailboxes ($25 per 1GB per mailbox per year) and shared storage ($30 for 50MB per year). You can also add SSL to deliver privacy using encrypted communications for $300 per year and full text search for $199 a year, which is useful if you share many documents online and want to find them quickly. If you need to add more users, you can upgrade seamlessly to a larger plan. You can assess WebOffice without cost by signing up for a 30-day free trial.

WebOffice vs. Roll Your Own

When a small business grows, it may be tempted to bring Web hosting and e-mail management in-house to achieve greater control. This also makes it easier to add specialized server-based collaboration capabilities.

However, this transition requires a substantial investment in server hardware and software, not to mention obtaining the technical expertise to set up the systems and then keep them running all the time.

Outsourcing Web hosting, e-mail, and collaboration services means fewer headaches for a small business. Technicians in a data center can monitor your online services, along with those of thousands of other businesses, for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week–on a more cost-effective basis than you could on your own.

That freedom from worry and the ability to add users as your business grows are the chief benefits of using a service like WebEx WebOffice.

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