Microsoft Armed and Equipt

New business software is packed with programs and features, heralding a new path for the company.
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Prepare ye for the coming of the new

Microsoft

.

(MSFT) - Get Report

For some, it's fun to trash new Microsoft products like Windows Vista and talk up hip new productivity tools such as

Apple

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iPhones and

Google

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Apps. But we here in the world of the little man know better: Eventually these other offerings may grow to be a serious threat to Microsoft, but when it comes to the tools small businesses use to keep running, our business is still Microsoft's to lose.

Just look at the numbers: For all the breathless marketing of the iPhone and the Mac, as of earlier this summer, iPhone subscribers totaled just 2.5 million, company executives said, and the share of the Apple operating system was only 7.5 percent of the total, according to

Net Applications

, the Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Web applications developer that tracks operating system deployment.

Compare that to 91 percent of the market Microsoft controls in operating systems and the roughly 240 million cell-phone subscribers in the U.S. That makes Apple the Isuzu of the small-business computer market: a nice company making a decent product, but hardly a Toyota or GM.

So when Bill Gates -- sorry, Steve Ballmer & Co. -- shows up with not only a new product, but a new way to sell that product, I'm all ears. And so should you.

Earlier this summer, Microsoft quietly rolled out just such an offering. It is a new riff on its ubiquitous Microsoft Office 2007 productivity suite called

Equipt

. This product packages the business software you know: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and others, with ones you may not -- OneCare, OneNote, and Microsoft Live WorkSpace software that manages your computer's security, organizes your thoughts and allows you to collaborate online -- and makes them available by subscription.

With Equipt, you pay a yearly fee for access to the code - $70 for not one but three sets of the full line of products. And those services are delivered and administered in a mixed online and desktop environment.

In other words, you don't buy Microsoft products, you rent them.

"It's all about an incremental strategy of getting the right product at the right price in the right person's hand through the right retail channel," says Bryson Gordon, group product manager for Equipt at Microsoft. "Subscription-based products let us get super-targeted about what we can offer."

I have been testing Equipt in my digital world recently and, I must say, the company has taken very big steps here: Equipt is very interesting for small businesses.

First, the installation is very un-Microsoft-like. No multiple discs or interminable upgrades or 45 minutes in front of the PC to get it work: Equipt comes as a single disc that takes all of 10 minutes to begin installation. The actual installation -- that is, downloading and configuring the software -- still takes the Microsoftian standard hour, but on a fast computer and decent Web connection, that process can take place in the background. So you can keep working while Equipt does its installation thing, though you will notice some processing drag and slow speeds during the process.

Once set up, Equipt prompts you to create an online account. Here, Microsoft gets points for playing nice in the identity sandbox. You can use

any

e-mail account, Microsoft Hotmail or not. But be careful. If you have several Microsoft IDs, or identities, you could find, like I did, that your identity gets corrupted - which takes some brown-belt-level gadget jujitsu to get things working as they should.

But once operational, Microsoft Equipt offers an interesting environment for software. Everything from Word to e-mail to online storage launches from a common window if you enable it. Equipt offers all of these tools in an easy-to-use and navigable way. Writing in Word is fast and stable. Sharing that document online in Microsoft Live Workspace is just as easy, as are online photo tools and chat functions. It's pretty darn -- dare I say it for a Microsoft product? -- slick.

And there is no beating the value here. For about $70 you not only get access to the Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other Microsoft applications, but you also get OneCare, the security suite, and several other goodies. And you get it for three computers, or roughly $24 each a year. Not bad.

Now, Equipt is definitely not fully small-business ready. This product is targeted mostly at schools, homes and non-commercial use. Outlook, for example, is not included. Microsoft's stripped-down Microsoft Live Mail is the e-mail application here. And all this hip Web administration can be a brainteaser: Getting default programs to open attachments as you want them can be an issue. Keeping your accounts straight is an issue. And OneCare is absolutely

not

my first choice in terms of security and computer maintenance. It routinely scores lower than competitive products.

Still, there is a lot to like about Equipt. If you are in the market for computer software or administering a bunch of PCs in your home, give Equipt a test drive.

The package provides an easy and affordable way to bring powerful Office productivity tools into even the most modest of operations. And it shows the world what market leader Microsoft has in mind for its - and our -- future.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.