Office Live Small Business customers grapple with migration

The Microsoft e-mail and website hosting service shut down days ago, but many small businesses haven't yet moved to another service

The deadline to migrate email domains and websites hosted on the Microsoft Office Live Small Business (OLSB) online service suite passed on Monday, but customers continue to post a steady stream of complaints and problem reports, indicating that the number of businesses that haven't made the transition is considerable.

Frustrated small business owners are struggling with a variety of technical issues, including lengthy delays in the process of verifying ownership of the Internet domains they're transferring from OLSB to Office 365 and other third-party hosts, according to posts made on the official OLSB Community site, the official Office 365 Facebook page, discussion forums, social media sites and blogs.

Microsoft started dismantling OLSB and turning off customer websites after midnight U.S. Pacific Time on Tuesday, though the company pledged to maintain Windows Live Hotmail custom email addresses hosted by the service for six months.

Microsoft is also providing an online form that OLSB customers can fill out to recover lost website data.

Microsoft on Friday declined to comment when asked how many OLSB customers missed the deadline to migrate.

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.

The decision to close OLSB was unpopular from the beginning, leading many customers to question why the service had to be shut down at all.

Complaints have also centered on the perception that Microsoft did very little to help OLSB customers migrate from the service. The customer base is made up largely of small businesses, which typically have limited technology knowledge and resources.

Specifically, Microsoft never developed a tool to automate the migration process. At a late stage, around March, several Microsoft partners began offering fee-based migration software tools and IT services.

In addition to the domain-verification delays, many customers have also had serious difficulties transferring their OLSB-hosted websites over to Office 365. Not only is the process a manual one involving copying and pasting of pages and their content, but in addition, the platforms are different, so many custom features and design elements have to be manually recreated.

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

A Microsoft spokeswoman earlier this week said via email: "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."

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.

One customer who took on the task of migrating her e-mail domain and website to Office 365 was Elaine Haygood, CEO of Lens Caps Productions, an independent multimedia production company in Chicago.

"I did the migration on my own, but I soon realized that the process was made harder than it had to be," said Haygood, whose company started using OLSB in 2005 for email, web hosting, intranet and document and data storage.

Not surprisingly, the email component is particularly important for her business operations. ""My business email is critical. I use it for automated billing, dealing with service providers, tracking orders of supplies, as well as my social media," she said.

It took her more than one week to transfer her company's domain from OLSB to Office 365. Many features and functions of her website didn't carry over to Office 365.

"I still maintain a 'basic' business info site on Office 365. A lot of the things we were able to do with OLSB's Design Wizard aren't supported on Office 365. I've seen posting instructions on workarounds, but it's very complex, and you'd need more than my meager skills to do so," Haygood said via email.

Haygood is still working on her company's website on Office 365, although she finds the design capabilities of the service "less than basic." Thus, she has opted to spin off the content aimed at fans of her company's work -- including web comics, graphic novels and animation -- in another website hosted on Wix, which she finds is much more suitable for high-traffic, entertainment-oriented sites.

"This was all very stressful. I thought I would only have to have my site down for a week originally while I worked this all out. Try to imagine having to tell my fanbase that the site would be down for the better part of a month while we work things out," she said. "Understand, when you're trying to build a brand, you can't afford to have that much down time. People lose interest and look elsewhere for their entertainment."

The number of Microsoft partners making migration tools and services available has been growing, responding to the demand for help from customers. One such partner is SkyKick, whose Office Live Switching Application automatically moves a company's website and email, calendar and contacts, including their domain, from Office Live to Office 365.

"We've designed it so that anyone can move their business in just 10 minutes of their time, with no IT experience required," said SkyKick Co-CEO Todd Schwartz via email.

The OLSB closure and migration process hasn't provided good publicity for Microsoft, which is in a dogfight with Google in the market for cloud-based e-mail and collaboration suites. Microsoft's Office 365 competes directly with Google Apps. The small business-segment is an important one in this market, accounting for most of the initial Office 365 sign-ups.

Unsurprisingly, another point of contention for small business customers has been cost, because Office 365 is generally more expensive than OLSB, and 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 has more features overall than OLSB does, 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.

But OLSB customer Haygood said, "Office 365 isn't really better. It's maybe different -- on the surface, that is. I'd have happily paid to stay at OLSB what I'll be paying for Office 365 just to keep what I had, with a few improvements to the site hosting/design software and the Web Apps."

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.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon