Office 365 - is it anything new?

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Office 365 is available now – is it anything really new?

Office 365 is the latest incarnation of the Microsoft Office family and is now publicly available.

It isn’t anything new from a technical point of view. Office 365 is a marketing move to bundle online and software services into a single package. It is mainly aimed at small businesses and organizations however we think there’s an untapped market for tech savvy individuals and families.

Yes, there’s a cloud element to Office 365, what doesn’t these days? You can also use it when not connected to the Internet or on a slow/shaky connection when you have the right software.

What’s in Office 365

In short, it contains Office software plus the online services to store and share data / documents. This has been available before, mostly from third-party vendors hosting Microsoft server software. Office 365 is hosted by Microsoft itself and at much lower prices than in the past.

If you’ve been interested in hosted server options but put off by the cost, then Office 365 is worth a look.

In most coverage, Office 365 is mentioned as a single package of software and services. In fact it’s a selection of offerings that you can choose from in a bewildering range of options.

Here’s what you can choose from in Office 365:

Office software

Each Office 365 license can include Office Professional Plus software (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, Access, InfoPath, SharePoint Workspace and Lync).

Unlike a standard ‘permanent’ Office installation, the Office 365 software is on a subscription basis. Office checks its license validity with Microsoft regularly to see if the subscription is still current.

Otherwise the software is the same as any other version of Office. At present you get the Office 2010 software but, being a subscription service, you’ll have the option to switch to future versions of Office as they appear.

Only Office for Windows is supplied in Office 365, Office for Mac isn’t available.

SharePoint Workspace lets you access and work offline on data stored in the online Sharepoint part of Office 365.

Outlook software is intended to be linked with the Exchange Online part of the Office 365 package.

At US$12 per user per month this is a more expensive way to buy Office unless you are cash strapped or have a short term project needing extra copies of Office for a year or less. You can use your existing Office software with Office 365, Office 2010 or Office 2007 will work best but older versions will work too.

Office Web Apps

To supplement the software, the subscription includes the browser based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. This lets people access and edit documents from any computer, not just the one with Office software installed.

This is the same Office Web Apps that are available via Windows Live or can be deployed on a company server. With Office 365 you can run Office Web Apps from any compatible browser and share documents via the SharePoint component of Office 365.

To work with the Office software and web apps is some of the Microsoft server systems, bundled into a package for Office 365.

Exchange Online

In our view, this is the most interesting part of Office 365. Many people are envious of the mail/calendar/contact sharing available via their workplace and would like to have it themselves. Now it’s available to individuals and small organizations without the need to install and maintain the like of Small Business Server.

Exchange Online is a hosted version of Exchange Server, providing a central storage point for all your email/contacts/ calendar and other information. In other words, everything you have in Outlook.

Once saved in Exchange Server you can access that information in a variety of ways. Obviously, Outlook is the main client but there are also options for connecting from almost any mobile device (not just Windows Mobile). ‘Push’ email is available for compatible devices (eg Blackberry or Touchdown for Android). Apple iPhone and iPads support Exchange Server natively. On top of that you can login from any browser to see your personal data via Outlook Web Access.

Having a single, always-accessible storage for email etc. is incredibly useful. It’s far better than the clumsy options available via Hotmail and others to say nothing of messy kludges for synchronizing data between copies of Outlook.

Office 365’s Exchange Online is suitably generous. Each user has 25GB for mailbox storage, which is way more than most people will need.

You can send messages up to 25MB in size, we think. The documentation varies between 25MB and 35MB for outgoing messages with the main web page lowering the number in the last day but other Office 365 documents saying 35MB. There’s no word on the incoming message limit. It would be good if Microsoft would clear these important points up and stick to their decision.

The price is compelling. Exchange Online is part of the headline $6 per month per user offer with no extra charge for mobile device access. Sure you can get similar services for free but $72 a year isn’t bad for the larger capacity and wider range of access options.

SharePoint Online

SharePoint is Microsoft’s solution for sharing non-Outlook data between people. It’s a central place to store documents and files among a group of people. There’s also way to create a simple web site and maintain simple databases online.

If you have SharePoint Workspace software (part of the higher end Office suites), SharePoint documents can be replicated for offline use on a laptop or desktop computer.

Lync Online

Lync is Microsoft’s real time communication service. It lets organizations create private networks for Instant Messaging, PC to PC audio/video calls, screen sharing etc.

If you use Skype (now owned by Microsoft) then you’re familiar with the concept. Think of Lync as a corporate version of many Skype features tightly integrated into Office and SharePoint.

30 day trial

There’s a free 30 day trial of Office 365 available from here. We strongly suggest you use the Office 365 trial before laying out any money.

During the trial you get access to the online services, Office Web Apps, Exchange , SharePoint and Lync but no Office software. However you can use your existing Office software with the Office 365 trial services.

During a ‘Plan P’ trial you are limited to ten accounts and cannot map your own domain name to the Office 365 services. During the trial you have a sub-domain off (eg ).

Choose your Trial carefully

Before you start a trial choose carefully the type or plan because you can’t convert between plans when switching to the paid version.

There are three Office 365 plans:

Plan P – for Professionals and small businesses.

Plan E – for larger enterprises

Education – this replaces the [email protected] initiative from Microsoft.

BYO Software

The headline $6 per month offering is a package that lets people use their current Office software and subscribe to the online services only. Given the price of subscribing to Office software with Office 365 this is the best option for most people and companies. Office 2010 or Office 2007 including Outlook is the best to accompany Office 365. SharePoint Workspace is good for offline access to SharePoint online but adds a lot to the software cost.

There are also ‘add-on’ options for more limited Exchange access and even a ‘Kiosk’ mode with just email and calendaring via the Web and POP.

What’s missing

The big missing element is an explicit sales level for individuals and families. There’s a market out there for a more robust, extensive and generous email/calendar/contact service than is available from the likes of Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail. Exchange Server provides that service but until now the price has been prohibitive.

Office 365’s Plan P for Professionals and Small Businesses seems suitable though it isn’t marketed that way. Most likely Microsoft is worried about the support expectations for individuals which is probably why they talk about ‘IT Professionals’ and don’t push the fact that you can join Office 365 with no minimum purchase in most cases.

Will it last?

The big question is – will it last? We’ve seen so many incarnations of Office and hosting in the past – Office 365 is just the latest one. Before you make the decision to move yourself or an organization to Office 365 you need to be assured that Microsoft won’t pull the plug or radically change it when it suits corporate whim.

Some price and service guarantees would reassure customers who have been burnt by Microsoft’s changing policies in the past.

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