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Microsoft Hosts Messaging for SMBs

Microsoft said its release of Microsoft Solution for Hosted Messaging and Collaboration Version 3.0 intends to provide a cost-effective way for small and medium-sized businesses to get advanced messaging functions.

The software package, announced Monday, is is a hosted version of Microsoft's family of productivity server products: Microsoft Exchange Sever 2003, Live Communication Server 2005 and Windows SharePoint Services.

Exchange is the dominant business e-mail application; Live Communication Server provides real-time collaboration features within existing Windows infrastructure and desktop applications; and Windows SharePoint Services let users create internal Web sites for information sharing and document collaboration.

Morgan Cole, product manager in Microsoft's Hosted Messaging and Collaboration division, said the package is an upgrade to the company's Hosted Exchange 2003 offering, adding support for document collaboration, secure instant messaging and presence. The software is targeted at companies with between 10 and 75 employees.

"Right now, small business' pain point is that if they want to trade documents around, they tend to just e-mail them back and forth. You get into version creep," Cole said. SharePoint services lets users keep documents in a separate repository, create automatic versions and control access.

Microsoft, of course, hopes that service providers will sell the whole bundle. "The Live Communication Server value is primarily as a bundle with, and that's how we see our service providers delivering it," Cole said. But SVs are free to offer the software separately.

Microsoft partner USA.NET plans to offer the Live Communication Server and SharePoint features on a seat-per-seat basis. The Colorado Springs provider of outsourced messaging already offers three tiers of hosted Microsoft Exchange.

"We built our model to give users flexibility," said CEO David Ramon. "In an organization that may have 100 employees, 50 percent may be on our high-end Platinum program, while the rest are on a mix of Silver and Gold service."

The product joins a growing group of high-end collaboration packages, such as Oracle's Collaboration Suite and IBM's Lotus suite. Microsoft also revamped its OneNote note-sharing application last June, adding real-time, peer-to-peer, multi-user sessions. It also added the ability to share panes and folders with others; password-protection of sessions and tighter integration with Outlook.

Microsoft partners are expected to offer the hosted collaboration and advanced messaging functionality for between $7 and $20 per user. Under the Hosted Service Provider License, SVs set their own rates and share revenue with Microsoft.

"This product gives us another leg up to provide organizations with more features and functionality," Ramon said.

According to Ramon, a combination of factors will encourage small businesses to upgrade: The need for more efficient collaboration; a more mobile workforce; proliferation of different kinds of wireless devices; regulatory requirements like Sarbanes-Oxley to archive not only e-mail but instant messages; and the need for more secure messaging, especially IM.

While the cost per seat may seem higher than licensing Exchange, USA.NET says outsourcing messaging saves on in-house IT costs.