Microsoft, faced with Web rivals looking to poach its business customers, said on Sunday it plans to broaden the availability of its online services for e-mail and collaboration software.
Last year, Microsoft started subscription-based online services to run its Exchange corporate e-mail program and SharePoint collaboration software on Microsoft's own computer systems as an alternative to customers buying their own hardware to run licensed software.
Microsoft initially limited those services to companies with more than 5,000 workers, but the company said it will now offer the service to businesses of all sizes in the second half of 2008, after a testing period. The company did not disclose how much it will charge customers for the services.
It will also begin to offer a free download of a software called Search Server 2008 Express that allows companies to search files and documents inside their network. The product will rival Google 's Search Appliance.
Microsoft unveilled the news during a speech on Monday by Chairman Bill Gates at a conference for SharePoint, one of its fastest-growing applications, which allows workers to share documents and plan projects on secure Web sites.
"The combination of software plus services gives customers advanced choice and flexibility in how they access and manage software," Gates said. "With Microsoft Online Services, businesses can deploy software as a subscription service, from servers they manage on-site, or a combination of the two, depending on their specific needs. In the future, customers and partners should expect to see this kind of choice and flexibility for all of Microsoft?s software and server products."
Microsoft today opened a limited beta trial of the new services; U.S.-based companies can register for the trial at http://www.mosbeta.com. The new services are scheduled to be generally available to businesses of all sizes in the second half of the year.
Hosted Web services are gaining popularity among business customers, because companies do not need to spend a lot of money upfront to buy and maintain powerful computer servers.
Instead, companies can rent space on a computer server from a service provider for a monthly fee and avoid being locked into multiyear corporate agreements that are used by Microsoft for many of its core software offerings.
It also lets smaller companies get applications normally reserved for large organizations.