Microsoft Office 365 beta: Potentially useful, occasionally frustrating

The suite of cloud-based business applications offers definite advantages -- if the rough edges can be smoothed out.

Microsoft Office 365, a suite of business-focused, cloud-based applications that was recently released in beta, is actually a repackaging and updating of various Microsoft offerings -- optimized for the cloud. The intent is to give small businesses the kind of benefits that up until now only large companies have been able to get from services such as Exchange and SharePoint.

Don't be confused by the product's name -- it's not a new or updated version of Microsoft Office. Office 365 is an upgrade of Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS). This revamped and renamed version of the suite adds subscription-based access to Office 2010 to BPOS and includes hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync (Microsoft's communications server), along with Office Web Apps, the Web-based version of Microsoft Office.

Some versions of Office 365 do include a subscription-based version of Microsoft Office Professional, and there are some links between Office 365 and Microsoft Office: You can use your local version of Microsoft Office to pull down and edit documents from the cloud, or use Office Web Apps to create and edit documents.

Apart from that, though, there are no connections, and you don't need Microsoft Office in order to use Office 365. It's one more example of confusing branding and naming from Microsoft.

From what I've seen in the beta, Office 365 offers an excellent set of tools for companies that want the power of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync but don't want to host them. It will be especially welcomed by small and midsize businesses that can't afford data centers and sizable IT staffs.

But the product, at least in its current form, has enough rough edges that it feels more like a series of applications bolted together than a well-thought-out, integrated whole.

Pricing

Pricing for Office 365 is tiered. Small businesses with up to 25 users pay $6 per user per month, which doesn't include Microsoft Office. (The suite works with already-installed versions of Office.) For larger enterprise customers, there's a wide range of pricing. For example, existing BPOS customers pay $10 per user per month (the same price they pay today), while enterprises that want a subscription-based version of Microsoft Office Professional Plus for their users, in addition to the rest of the suite, pay $24 per user per month.

Exchange and Outlook in the cloud

When you first log in (Office 365 supports Internet Explorer and Firefox, but not Chrome), you're greeted by a simple, straightforward page that lets you navigate to the Web-based version of Outlook for reading e-mail, head to SharePoint to use its services, install or use the Lync communications server, install connector software that links your local Outlook client to Office 365, or install Microsoft Office Professional if it's not already installed.

Office 365
The first impression of Office 365 is of a well-integrated suite.

The heart of the suite, and the feature that can provide the greatest benefit for small and midsize businesses, is Exchange hosted in the cloud. This offers the benefits of Exchange without the headaches of hosting.

The biggest advantage is getting access to corporate e-mail via client-based Outlook, Outlook on the Web, and on most popular mobile devices, including Windows Phone 7 devices, Android devices, BlackBerries and Apple's iPhone.

For mobile devices, Office 365 provides true Exchange support, not merely POP3 access -- the e-mail storage is in a central location, and you're merely accessing that same storage from different devices. For example, if you create and send e-mail on your Android phone, it will show up in your e-mail outbox on client-based Outlook, Outlook on the Web, or any other device that accesses your mail.

More important, when you take any action on your e-mail on any device, that action automatically flows to any other devices accessing e-mail. Create a new folder on Web-based Outlook, for example, and it shows up in the client version of Outlook.

The Web-based version of Outlook looks much like the client version; there's no learning curve because the interface mimics the familiar client look quite well. As with the rest of the suite, it's supported on Firefox and Internet Explorer, but not Chrome. It will be familiar to those who have used Outlook Web Access (OWA). You get access to your calendar as well as e-mail.

Office 365
The Web-based version of Outlook looks much like the client version.

Going mobile

Setup and use on mobile devices is generally straightforward, as long as you watch out for a few potential glitches. It should be no surprise that setup with Windows Phone 7 devices is the simplest. Just enter your password and username, and Windows Phone 7 does the rest. You'll then be able to use your mail via Windows Phone 7's Outlook app. However, you may not see older e-mails that have been sent and received. That's because the default setting for Outlook on Windows Phone 7 only syncs mail that has been sent and received in the last three days.

You can change that setting to the last seven days, the last two weeks or the last month, or you can set it up so you can view mail sent and received at any time. In Outlook on Windows Phone 7, get to the settings screen, then select "Sync settings-->Download e-mail from" and make your choice about how you want mail synced.

Setting it up on other phones generally takes a little more work. In Android, for example, you have to go into My Accounts and set up a new Corporate Sync Account. For the Domain/username field, you have to append the address of your Office 365 account to the front of your username. For example, if your Office 365 account is mydomain.onmicrosoft.com, and your username is pgralla, you'd enter mydomain.onmicrosoft.com/pgralla in that field. For the Server field, you enter m.outlook.com. Once you do that, it works and syncs as you would expect.

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