Microsoft offers Canadian firms free trial of four hosted flagship apps

Microsoft took another step up into the clouds today with its trial release of online versions of what has traditionally been client-side software.

Microsoft will allow Canadian businesses a trial run with four hosted services starting March 3. With Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Communications Online and Office Live Meeting, the software giant is offering its customers another option to run on-site servers for these well-rooted business applications.

The services are packaged together in the Business Productivity Online Suite.

It’s another transitional point for Microsoft’s much publicized “software plus services” approach to cloud computing that also includes the next version of Office and the new Azure operating system, says Phil Sorgen, president of Microsoft Canada Co.

“All of our offerings will be available to customers on premises in their own environment, or within the cloud as a service provided to them, or a mix of both,” he says. “We have Windows for the PC, Windows for the server, and now Windows for the cloud all working seamlessly together.”

Small business operators attending the product launch event in Toronto seemed to warm to the idea of Microsoft’s cloud-based offerings. The approach makes Microsoft’s products more affordable to smaller companies, says David Michaels, sole proprietor of Intelliguard Corp. a Toronto firm that specializes in helping companies patent and trademark intellectual property.

“It’s cheaper than setting up your own Microsoft Exchange server,” Michaels says. “You don’t have to pay for the IT personnel to install and maintain it.”

While he’s not interested in using the services for his own company, Michaels — a mechanical and aeronautical engineer by training — says he would recommend it to clients.

Other entrepreneurs see the new offering as opening up the field for them. Fred Arnold, a senior account manager at Markham, Ont.-based Viatrade says he’ll use the services to market his online bartering system. Arnold plans to hire an IT staffer to set up and run the services for him.

“I can’t imagine not doing it. I’ll have many, many, many more clients this way.”

The economic downturn has led companies – big and small – to focus IT investments on fewer areas, says Warren Shiau, an IT analyst with the consultancy Strategic Counsel.

Companies, he says, are spending only when they believe the investment will save them money in the long run, as is the case with technologies such as virtualization and business reporting/analysis. Microsoft’s collaboration suite is another example, Shiau says.

Many businesses considering cloud computing are concerned over whether their data will be secure outside of the corporate firewall. But a trusted name such as Microsoft’s could go a long way to allaying those fears, the analyst says.

“You trust Bell to deliver a dial tone,” he says. “People trust Microsoft to deliver a certain level of technology competency to them.”

Microsoft does indeed have that sort of familiarity in the marketplace, agrees Darren Meister, an associate professor of information systems with the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. But holding that trust can be like wielding a double-edged sword.

“If Microsoft had a big data spill in the public, that would be a disaster for them,” he says. “It would hurt not just this product, but tons of products. They can’t afford to mess up.”

The full suite of online services will cost Canadian customers $20 a month per licence, with a minimum of five licenses purchased.

Another option dubbed the “Desk-less Worker Suite” is a cheaper alternative for employees that don’t spend all day sitting at a computer, but still need to check in with e-mail and calendars.

Users trying the software will create a log-in to access the services. Many of the products will look and feel like the same software that installed on an internal server – because it is the same software. The only difference is that now Microsoft is running the service, and you’re accessing it through your Web browser.

“We’ve been working with enterprise customers for many years and they’re familiar with Outlook and Office,” Sorgen explains. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure the integration for those products is high.”

Users of the services will have their data stored in U.S. data centres for now, Microsoft says. The company also has data centres in Ireland and Singapore.

Canadian businesses can tap into the trial at

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