Office 365: Microsoft takes to the Cloud

Managing Editor John Stokdyk from our sister site, AccountingWEB.co.uk, decided to test drive the beta version of Microsoft Office 365. Here is his report.

Microsoft Office 365 is an evolution of Office 2010 Web Apps that makes four key Office products available via the net: Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote, plus the program provides access to the Microsoft SharePoint Web portal system and Exchange.

Where Office Live was more of a personal Cloud that gave you access to the Office tools, Office 365 is a true corporate environment that, within the beta system at least, will let you cater to and collaborate with up to 25 colleagues.

The Exchange option is particularly interesting if you’re a small company using a standard POP Internet service. Exchange gives you the ability to administer and archive all company e-mail in one place and to synchronize diaries and tasks between team members. This is a boon if you haven’t got Exchange, but will require much more careful management if you’ve already made the move to Microsoft Exchange and want to link into Office 365 too. For example, will you have to decide which acts as the “master” system, and which the slave that synchs into it.

With so many facilities on offer, Office 365 looks like it might be capable of supporting an entire company’s administrative technology needs. However, our IT support crew might get a little touchy about some of the things it lets you do. For their sake, I won’t try to take over administration of our e-mail system. Instead this introductory article will explore what exactly is available and how it works during the initial encounters, to give readers an idea about whether the program is worth exploring for their own uses.

I've been keeping a close eye on Windows Live developments in recent years. But I came up against a technical roadblock in Windows Live when I tried to share my hefty Fantasy Football player analyser with colleagues; it was too big to display in a browser Window.

The big test for Office 365 would be to see whether it could cope with this real-world scenario, and if it could support cross-platform access from my partner’s Mac, or from BlackBerry and iPhone devices. It was brilliant to be able to log in from a Mac (using Apple's Safari browser, even) and create a Word document. Unfortunately, when it came to the 33Mb football KPI dashboard, the Office 365 Web App was just as uncomfortable handling it as Office Live.

My first encounter was fraught with a few other frustrations. After going through all the hoops to get a WindowsLive ID and access Windows Office Live in the past, the universal passport doesn’t work with the Office 365, so there’s a new ID and password to remember, plus a new domain the system creates for you @onmicrosoft.com.

What it offers

  • Home: a base for uploading and sharing documents with up to 25 colleagues; this page is also where they will need to connect their desktop apps to Office 365.
  • Access to Office Web Apps, including Outlook to manage your e-mail and calendar.
  • Team Site: a Web site hosted by Microsoft SharePoint, but incorporating similar design and management tools as the Windows Live Web-hosting service.
  • Lync Online, a unified communications environment that lets you send and receive instant messages (IM), run peer-to-peer audio and video sessions, and display presence information about team members.
  • Admin section: for adding and managing users, and accessing Microsoft support resources when you need them.

The Web Apps have fewer menu tabs and options than the usual desktop Office programs. Excel just has File, Home, and Insert tabs, so there is no access to pivot table tools or macros. If you want full access, there is an "Open in Office" option for each application.

To get full integration with your desktop apps, you need to download and run an Office 365 setup program. If you already have the Office suite installed, this step adds a minor element of duplication, but once you have configured the SharePoint component to work with Office 365 you can access and work on the documents in your shared Web portal.

Note that, after agreeing to the license terms, the first stage of the installation started to upgrade my desktop version of Office. I decided this was as far as I could take my test drive without consulting the IT support team and the Office 365 user forums.

If you do want your on-premise and on-line Exchange e-mail systems to co-exist, Office 365 has a Custom Plan wizard to help create a custom pilot scenario and deployment plan, so you can test your deployment strategy with a small number of users before rolling it out fully.

My initial experiences confirmed something that was evident from the outset: if you’re setting out to build an IT infrastructure for your organization from scratch, Office 365 has a lot going for it. While it will also provide the means to integrate your existing desktop Office programs, documents, and e-mail into a Cloud environment, you’ll need to do some careful research and planning to manage the process smoothly.

The Cloud movement has revved up significantly in the past few months, particularly with Google threatening to unleash its operating system-free Chromebook machine, which dispenses with all the administrative overheads. Microsoft has got a stranglehold on desktop users, and Office 365 is designed to keep things that way. If you’re comfortable with the Microsoft conventions, processes and interfaces, it’s a very generously featured suite that should make you more productive on the move, but it remains a monolith that demands your undivided attention.

The nature of fast moving Cloud developments is that there’s always an even better, cleverer, and faster solution just around the corner. To put it in the terms we used to use for business and practice applications, Office 365 is very much a “suite” that promises to take care of everything for you. But it’s going against the emerging trend for users to opt for “best of breed” Cloud applications.

Find out more about Office 365 yourself - sign up for the beta test version here.

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