Will it really transform your experience compared to the desktop version of Office?
Office 365 is a relaunch of Microsoft‘s clumsily named Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS). Bizarrely, it’s also referred to on Microsoft’s own website as Business Productivity Online Softwareand Services – giving the impression that the branding was never quite spot on.
The basic Office 365 package is an upgrade to the 2010 versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications Online and Live Meeting – the last two of which have become one and are now known as Lync. More interesting though are the additional Office Software Online options that it brings. You can have online web apps at a small extra cost, and for a bit more subscribe to full Microsoft Office.
Despite cynics referring to this as a glorified rebranding exercise, the inclusion of the most commonly used office software in the world certainly adds a massive edge. Furthermore, the increase in options in SharePoint 2010 and Outlook Web access 2010 is considerable.
BPOS customers can relax in the knowledge that their subscription will soon be upgraded, while others who bought traditional SharePoint and Exchange spent a week installing it and setting it up on an expensive server will be on the same old system, eyeing their competition jealously as their productivity increases along with their new software.
Okay, it might not be that dramatic, but when future upgrades happen – and the cost of new servers and server maintenance don’t rear their ugly heads – it will have a big effect on costs and continuity. Old servers can be a dangerous game if not backed up, as massive data loss can be terminal – especially to small businesses.
This approaches another big improvement – the provision to subscribe with fewer than five users, which puts cost-conscious small businesses in a position to pay a fair price and have a system that can grow with them. A subscription to Office, for instance, can save a startup company thousands on initial software expenditure, meaning they can pay as they start to make money rather than at start up.
If you’re new to the cloud, then it is worth pointing out that all of this basically means that you move one or two of the big servers in your office into the bin and access everything instead from Microsoft’s servers. Microsoft Exchange syncs perfectly with your local Outlook and can be accessed anywhere online using Outlook Web App (previously Outlook Web Access – yes, the name changes are endless) which is used to manage email, calendars, contacts and tasks.
A full Personal Information Manager in the cloud is a massive bonus, and the Outlook Web App means you have most of the functions of your desktop Outlook at your fingertips wherever you are, not just when you’re on your own PC. The range of options and features are vast in comparison to the 2007 OWA and gives users a great deal more flexibility in how they manage their email and time.
Microsoft Office 365: the Home Page
A common misconception about cloud services is that in order to work you need to be online. I agree that this need for connection is a major drawback, and one that Google Apps Premier has in buckets. (You can’t even change a Google spreadsheet or document if you’re not online. This may change later this year with offline HTML5 versions, but for now it’s a big hassle.)
This is where Microsoft really shines: OWA syncs with your on-premises Outlook. Equally, Office 365 supports the SharePoint Workspace offline tool, meaning you can work on your desktop and then sync with the cloud when you are connected. If you’ve used SharePoint 2010, which is a big improvement on 2007, the online version is virtually the same. The familiar MS Office style means that it is easy for anyone familiar with Microsoft software to learn.
It’s perhaps unfair that Microsoft has the inherent advantage of a familiar user interface, but nevertheless it does – and that’s all there is to it. SharePoint is a great document management tool. It can be made as simple or complex as you like with its greatest advantage being its one size fits all approach (and equally perhaps its greatest drawback). Many users like the basic approached offered by a shared drive, rather than the complexities of document management and so simple document storage facilities can be setup for access by groups of users with as much filing and process as you deem suitable.
SharePoint 2010 in Office 365 can also be used as a public-facing web presence with easy-add features such as maps and PayPal integration. By clicking the website button in a team site, you’re taken straight to an online web page. This isn’t a full solution and is obviously not going to remove the need for a website; however, while designing your site, it can be very useful as a landing page. For companies that don’t spend much time on the web, or much money on IT, it can provide that simple web presence which will allow people to verify your company as essentially “real”. Before or after meetings, everyone invariably checks a company’s website; if there’s nothing there, then it certainly doesn’t look good.
Finally, there’s Lync 2010, combining instant messaging with web conferencing. This can definitely save time and money – we’ve found through BPOS that the OCO (IM) is very well received. It’s a product linking all of a company’s users, and one which definitely saves money and sometimes deals. When sitting in a meeting with your laptop, you essentially have a silent line to those back in your office. You can basically get questions answered by colleagues without clients even knowing that you’ve asked them. (Well, apart from the frantic typing, perhaps.) It’s something that many companies never knew they would benefit from until they have it.
Unfortunately, there’s no telephone integration yet, although it’s something that is coming in one form or another. Still, it’s easy to allow external users and to invite people to video and audio conferences which, especially for a small business, is extremely powerful software feature given the price. You can also effectively present online through desktop sharing – which, if it suits your business model, can save time and money.
Microsoft Office 365: the IT Management dashboard
Beyond these functions you have your options on MS Office software. This can be delivered via web apps or via a full blown PC download. The subscription service will take away a large amount of focus on basic software upgrades. The Web Apps have the added features which originally made Google Apps really stand out – such as live, collaborative document editing. Obviously with this tied in with Lync you can create collaborative works with extreme efficiency regardless of locality. You can also use SharePoint Workspace to work with documents when you’re offline, synchronizing with Office 365 when you have a connection.
The integration with Office 365 and your desktop is very simple. OWA can sync with Outlook 2010 at the click of a button and you can sync both your work desktop and your home PC very easily.
Office 365 is the product Microsoft should have released in the first place. The previous name was never up to scratch and the 2007 software, made slimline for the cloud, felt like a kneejerk reaction to Google Apps. No doubt Microsoft had to react, but Office 365 feels more robust.
The financial savings over time will be significant and although its price point is a lot higher than Google Apps, I think the options and familiarity are vastly superior. The desktop software almost moves it away from comparison with Google Apps; perhaps most important of all is the free phone administrator support, which has always been a major advantage (and cost) that even BPOS had over Google Apps.
Office 365 is officially launched on Tuesday 28 June. It has taken a while, but Microsoft may well have put itself back in pole position in the Software as a Service battle.
• Andrew Gradwell has experience in all levels of IT, as a user, support engineer and a company director. Heading up Cloud Hypermarket, he is on a mission to bring cloud savings to companies that really need it, rather than those it is most profitable to sell to.