The trend for businesses to move away from high-cost software in a box in favour of applications hosted online and paid for according to use continues to grow, and this is not a trend that Microsoft has been able to ignore, and so in Summer 2011 launched Microsoft Office 365.
Naming the service Microsoft Office 365 gives the instant impression that what's being offered is no more or less than an Internet version of the popular Office suite. But that's misleading, as there's a great deal more to Office 365 than its conventionally licensed cousin.
It's more than Office online
The Office 365 service gives you cloud-based versions of Microsoft's best known business apps – Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as the newer OneNote information gathering and collaboration tool - and in addition to these you get a hosted version of the Exchange email platform, the Sharepoint document sharing platform and Lync, a service that gives you Skype-like functionality in the form of Instant Messaging (IM), video conferencing, and Internet telephony. Users can access these capabilities through presence indicators and contact cards that appear in the applications. All of this can be leased for a fee starting from £4 per user per month under one or other of a choice of available plans.
Flexibility with offline and online versions
Larger businesses than run Windows networks can transfer Active Directory and domain information into Office 365. For businesses with a critical mass of employees, Office 365 offers an important variant on other online application models. You can if desired split users between the full-on cloud version of the applications and downloading and installing them on local hard disks.
This flexibility is one of the strengths of Office 365, and means you really can have your cake and eat it if there are good reasons for you to keep some of your software functionality on-premise.
In recognition that different organisations have different employees with different work profiles and software requirements, Microsoft have shaped Office 365 so there are a variety of service plans and individual applications that can be chosen. So you can have online and offline versions of the service if you want. And let's face it, cloud-based services are all well and good until your Internet connection crashes, when it becomes quite handy to have some locally installed tools to fall back on.
People contemplating Office 365 will naturally weigh up its differences and similarities with whatever version of the regular licensed Office suite they already deploy. But a better comparison is arguably with other online hosted applications offers. Google Apps is the market leader here. But Google Apps doesn't give you anything like Exchange, Lync or SharePoint. Nor does it give quite the same level of control to IT admin staff.
Most companies still have Windows as their backbone operating system, so there's some logic to migrating to a Microsoft hosted app if you're taking the step of moving away from licenced software – even if it's an intermediate step. It's less of a leap than Google, and with the attraction of some features Google Apps doesn't yet offer.
Getting support for Office 365
So much for what you get with Office 365, and how you acquire it. Another consideration you'll want to weigh up front is support.
With an earlier forerunner of Office 365 Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), support was in the main delivered by off-shore IT services third parties, and by all accounts this often fell a bit short. Anecdotes abound about support staff with insufficient experience, or little appreciation of the issues that users might be facing. If Microsoft wants to play catch-up in the cloud world and deliver a better outcome to users and compete with Google and Amazon Web Services, then it will have to be held to its promise to do better with Office 365 support. If you are making the major strategic leap of shifting applications off the desktop and into the ether, you've a right to ask searching questions up front about who will be supporting you in this move, no matter how small your business is.
Let's not forget though that along with the psychological leap of a shift to the cloud, and all its attendant novelty and anxiety, come certain benefits that are hard to resist.
You'll be handing a lot of your IT headaches to Microsoft, with its specialised resources and data centres equipped to deal with them. You won't need to ask in-house staff to carry out the duller daily tasks, like server maintenance and antivirus updates. You also don't need to bother about the effort and cost associated with moving to future versions of Office, Exchange, Lync and SharePoint. You'll always have up-to-date versions of everything delivered to employees.