Microsoft is set to give users a first look at its Office Live hosted service. The company plans to offer the service in three versions, one of which will be advertising-supported and free of charge to customers.

All three versions - Microsoft Office Live Basics, Microsoft Office Live Collaboration and Microsoft Office Live Essentials - will be a part of the beta programme. Office Live Basics will be free, while pricing for the other two will start at a subscription price of US$29.95 a month.

Microsoft introduced its Office Live service last November when it announced its strategy to provide more web-based services branded under the "Live" moniker. At the time, there were scant details about what Office Live would exactly offer.

Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said that Office Live will be an important offering for Microsoft going forward as a competitor to existing offerings such as Intuit's QuickBase, which, like Office Live will do, offers small companies a set of services to manage their businesses.

"They're putting quite a bit of development effort into it," he said. "I think there will be some powerful tools [in Office Live] even if they're not perfectly baked at the time of the beta. I think it will be serious initiative in the next couple of years."

Microsoft Office Live Basics is a collection of free services offering customers a domain name; five e-mail accounts using a that domain name with 2GB of storage; a website with 30MB of file storage space; a drag-and-drop design tool for building a website; and the Microsoft Office Live Site Reports tool for monitoring and analysing website traffic.

Microsoft Office Live Collaboration will be sold via subscription and provides Internet-based business management tools. The service is based on Microsoft Windows SharePoint Service technology, and offers password-protected intranets and extranets; customer management; project management; sales and marketing management; employee management; and company administration, according to the company. It also includes password-protected internal shared sites for employees, customers and other business partners to collaborate.

The most comprehensive Office Live version is Microsoft Office Live Essentials. This version of the service is a subscription offering that is aimed at providing all the tools small business customers need to manage their business online, Microsoft said.

Services include a company domain name; 50 e-mail accounts using that company domain name, each with 2GB of storage; a website with 50MB of file storage space; the same web design tool as Microsoft Office Live Basics, plus Microsoft FrontPage support; and other Internet-based applications such as customer, project and document management.

Microsoft plans to release public versions of all three Office Live editions in late 2006.

Customers that want to participate in the beta program can register online from 15 February.