Microsoft's Office Live Small Business closing today

It seems that many customers of this cloud-hosted email and website hosting suite won't make the deadline to transition to another service

Microsoft is sticking to its plan to shut down its Office Live Small Business (OLSB) suite of cloud-based services on Monday, even though it seems many customers are either unaware of the deadline or are having difficulties migrating.

Many OLSB customers are still posting questions and reporting problems related to the migration in discussion forums, social media sites and blogs, as the clock ticks.

It's unclear how many OLSB customers remain oblivious to the suite's impending shutdown. OLSB is used primarily for email communications and website hosting.

Microsoft still plans to start dismantling OLSB after midnight U.S. Pacific Time on Tuesday, when it will start taking down OLSB-hosted websites, a Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed.

However, Microsoft will keep operational the Windows Live Hotmail custom email addresses hosted by the service for six months, she said via email.

Microsoft will also provide an online form that OLSB customers who miss today's deadline can fill out to recover lost website data, she said.

It's not clear when Microsoft decided to keep the email accounts active for six more months and to offer the website data-recovery form. The decisions may be a sign that Microsoft is aware that a significant number of OLSB customers will not transition in time.

Microsoft declined to estimate what percentage of the OLSB customer base has migrated away from the service already and what percentage remains on the service.

Microsoft first announced its intention to close OLSB about 18 months ago and launched the suite's replacement, Office 365, in June of last year. Customers also have the option to migrate to non-Microsoft email and website hosting providers such as GoDaddy.

"We're communicating directly with OLSB users via email, the OLSB community, the OLSB website and through notifications in the service to help them transition to Office 365 or another provider," the Microsoft spokeswoman wrote.

Microsoft has an online transition center for OLSB, where it published, among other things, a transition guide for customers willing to do the migration manually.

Several Microsoft partners are also providing migration services and tools. One of them is Lucid Pointe, based in Stamford, Connecticut.

Lucid Pointe has been providing OLSB migration services since the launch of Office 365, on whose implementations it specializes, said Robert Clark, managing principal at the company.

However, the demand for OLSB migration services began to pick up considerably at the beginning of March of this year, he said via email.

So far, Lucid Pointe has provided migration services to "dozens" of OLSB customers, all of them transferred to Office 365, he said. Lucid Pointe fees vary depending on the nature of the services provided and the complexity of the migration.

Asked whether it was still getting requests for OLSB migration services as of Monday, Clark said: "Yes, we are."

"We offer a complete migration service that includes setting up an Office 365 account and users, rebuilding the client website in Office 365, and managing the redirection of Web and email traffic to Office 365, working with the domain registrar as necessary. Clients may also retain us to perform specific aspects of the migration," he said.

The extent of the fallout will become clearer on Tuesday and on the days after. If the number of affected customers is significant, the consequences for them and for Microsoft could be very costly.

Even if their email continues to work for six more months, small businesses that find their website is suddenly offline will inevitably be harmed by the situation, since websites have become essential in sales and marketing efforts.

For Microsoft, it would be a black eye as it battles Google and others providers of cloud-based communication and collaboration suites with its new Office 365.

The complaints from OLSB customers about the decision to close the service began many months ago and have grown in intensity as the deadline approached.

Many OLSB customers have argued that the transition to Office 365 or to another third-party email/website hosting provider is too complicated technically for them to carry out.

Some have suggested that Microsoft could have closed OLSB to new signups while keeping the service operational for existing customers.

Many have said that Microsoft could have made the transition to Office 365 easier. A specific issue that has drawn many complaints is that the work of migrating an OLSB website to Office 365 is arduous and erratic, because the Web hosting platforms are different. As a result, some functionality and design features have to be manually re-done in Office 365.

Thus, many users are reporting formatting problems in the transition, especially if the websites have custom design features.

Recently, some Microsoft partners developed automated tools to transfer websites from OLSB to Office 365, including CloudVisors. However, Microsoft never developed its own tool to do this.

OLSB customers have also complained that Office 365 is generally more expensive, and that having to hire a Microsoft partner to carry out the transition adds to the cost. OLSB is free, with optional fee-based add-ons. In comparison, the Office 365 plan for small businesses, called P1, costs US$6 per user, per month, and more if customers add the option of Office Professional Plus, an upgrade over the standard Office Web Apps.

While Office 365 is more feature-rich than OLSB, the question for OLSB customers is whether they will use the additional features they're paying more for.

"OLSB appealed to a lot of different people, especially because of the free website. Office 365 is targeted at meeting the needs of small business owners and professionals. Many OLSB customers won't see Office 365 as a good fit, especially since Office 365 isn't free," reads a Web page on the official OLSB website.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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