updated 2/14/2006 3:22:31 PM ET 2006-02-14T20:22:31

Microsoft Corp. is launching a free test version of Office Live, one pillar in the company's plans to compete with the likes of Google Inc. and Salesforce.com Inc. by making more products and services that run over the Internet.

The test, to be available starting Wednesday morning, will provide very small businesses with tools to create Web sites and manage data online.

It comes more than three months after Microsoft announced plans to release such a product. A final version isn't due out until late this year. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

The challenge for Redmond-based Microsoft is to persuade users to use its Internet-based offerings without abandoning its computer desktop-bound cash cows, such as its Office business software and the Windows operating system.

Companies such as Google have been successful at offering free, mostly consumer offerings for performing tasks like sending and storing e-mail online. The search engine leader also is testing a program for using its Gmail service to host other organizations' e-mails under their own domain names.

Salesforce.com, meanwhile, has had surprising success with its online service for leasing software applications for businesses.

Microsoft is touting Office Live as complementary to its desktop Office suite, which includes such products as Outlook e-mail and Excel spreadsheet software.

The online products will include Office Live Basics, a free, advertising-supported offering that gives users a domain name, five e-mail accounts using that name and tools for easily creating a Web site.

The company also is launching test versions of Office Live Essentials, which provides more sophisticated tools for small businesses wishing to maintain a Web presence, and Office Live Collaboration, which provides businesses with more ways to work together and maintain data online.

Baris Cetinok, a director of product management and marketing at Microsoft, said the tools are largely aimed at businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

He said the offerings won't compete with Microsoft Business Solutions, a unit that generally targets larger and higher-end businesses.

The products will be free in the test phase. Cetinok said he expects the final versions of the more sophisticated tools, Essentials and Collaboration, to cost less than $50 per month, although exact pricing hasn't been set.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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