A brave, new and better era for Microsoft users.
When Office 365 was released in June 28 2011, it came with a few surprises. The most important was what Office 365 wasn’t. Office 365 was not just a cloud version of the desktop Microsoft Office suite; it is in fact better in some ways, less featured in others.
Microsoft takes a very different position to Google on cloud computing. Office 365 is intended as an extension of the desktop Office suite, not its replacement, as Microsoft wants companies to run desktop software in conjunction with a cloud service.
Microsoft claims that combining the two platforms gives users the best of both worlds, and there are clear benefits to this approach. Competitors claim the vendor is just trying to capture sales of cloud software without sacrificing its desktop software revenue, which underpins Microsoft financially.
Desktop Office is the familiar suite of applications that has come to rule the business world; Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
Office 365 comprises four elements:
1. Office Web Apps – a mini-suite of online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote
2. Exchange Online – email and calendar
3. SharePoint Online – file storage and management, intrasites and extrasites
4. Lync Online – chat, voice and video calling and conferencing
Each component is explained in greater detail below.
The suite of Office Apps shows up the similarities and differences between the desktop suite, Office, and the cloud suite, Office 365.
The reason Microsoft Word Web App wasn’t called “Cloud Microsoft Word” is probably because each of the Web Apps is a pale imitation of its desktop cousin. (More fully featured versions will no doubt become available.)
Rather than creating documents, the Web Apps are only intended for minor edits to existing documents stored in the cloud. For example, Microsoft Word Web App can’t perform key tasks such as Find and Replace, or do a word count.
While this is disappointing for those expecting to find a full version of Word online, Microsoft has made the latest version of desktop Office (Office Professional Plus) connect seamlessly with Office 365. You can open documents stored in Office 365 using your desktop version of Word or Excel, and the program will automatically save it back to the cloud.
Microsoft is so keen for businesses to move to Office Professional Plus and take advantage of its integration into the cloud that it is bundling the desktop software with the more expensive Office 365 enterprise licences which start at $40 per user per month. It is not available with Office 365’s SMB plan.
For businesses which have had little or no experience with cloud computing, the combination of Office Professional Plus and Office 365 working together will definitely impress. It opens the door to much more flexible working arrangements and business processes that could dramatically increase the efficiency of a business.
For almost any small business, Exchange Online is a fantastic improvement over running Exchange internally on a server. Instead of worrying about upgrading hard drives and storage as employees’ inboxes reach capacity, Exchange Online gives every user a 25GB inbox. The two top-tier enterprise plans make inbox limits a thing of the past as they come with unlimited mailboxes, a brilliant concept.
Archiving is a tick-box option for peace of mind if compliance and email storage is an issue; no tape backup required.
Exchange Online looks and behaves almost identically to the desktop version. The email client and calendar operate in the same way.
One caveat is that IT administrators might not be able to connect Exchange Online to existing internal business systems as easily. A business that relies on a heavily programmed Exchange server for its daily work flow should check whether Exchange Online can replace as it as it does not support all third-party plugins for Outlook.
Like Exchange, the online version of SharePoint is a brilliant alternative for small businesses compared to the on-premise version. The ability to make intrasites and extrasites without worrying about straining the host server frees up a business to work on content rather than IT logistics.
SharePoint Online is also a collaboration tool that provides basic document management and task automation. It comes with calendars, contacts, work flows, forms, access services and website templates to help a business share and manage information more effectively.
Instead of storing your files on your server in the office, SharePoint Online lets any of your staff open, edit, download and share documents from anywhere you have an internet connection. This ability to work from anywhere can have a profound impact on how a business is structured as well as how it operates.
Microsoft emphasised to me that SharePoint Online was not designed as a simple replacement for a file server. While it can act as ordinary, cloud-based storage, it has much greater potential as a tool for collaboration, version and permission control, workflow and presence integration.
Lync Online is a communications platform that weaves together instant messaging (like Windows Live Messenger) and internet-based voice and video calling (like Skype). It does this with a Skype-like interface which shows a picture of each contact with a colour to show whether he or she is on the phone, in a meeting or free to take a call. This is called “presence” in IT jargon and is supposed to dramatically cut down the number of voice messages and phone tag.
Lync Online can also share a desktop or application, which means that a user can show one or more others what files are sitting on their desktop, show a presentation or demonstrate an application like an architectural drawing. Participants don’t need to be Office 365 users to attend and view presentations.
Lync Online supports phone and video conferencing with other Lync users and regular landlines and mobile phones. It is hugely powerful and has the potential to replace a small business’ PBX phone system.
For more advice on choosing between Office 365 and Google Apps, see our buyer’s advice page for productivity suites.