Microsoft Office 365: An Inside Look10:00 AM EST Mon. Apr. 18, 2011
Microsoft is taking a big step toward putting the entirety of its product line into the cloud with Microsoft Office 365. This is its online-based offering that combines Exchange, SharePoint and Lync (formerly Office Communications Server) into one package for $6 per month, per user.
Microsoft has had Word, Excel and PowerPoint in the cloud for some time with its Office Live and Skydrive online products. Office 365 is a business-ready extension of Office Live.
Here is a look at some of Office 365’s features.
Office 365 provides full administrator and manager controls, with user account creation, security policies and assignments and license management, among other things. From this panel, administrators also have direct access to support from Microsoft -- although Microsoft says it is still committed to leading with the channel for sales and support of Office 365.
User control is straightforward, but adding features including single sign-on and Active Directory sync do require at least baseline understanding of Microsoft’s platforms. Still, the look and feel of user management should be familiar to most.
A key feature of the Microsoft productivity and communications platforms is presence awareness, and that feature is included -- and easily recognizable -- in Office 365. Instant Messaging via Microsoft Messenger is, as well, an included feature.
Through Office 365, tasks can be created, tracked and shared just like on-premise solutions that include Outlook and SharePoint. Microsoft appears to have taken great pains to make task management as intuitive as they have in existing versions of its technology.
Office Live, which is not new, was Microsoft's delivery of Word, Excel and PowerPoint creation, editing and management into the cloud. Office 365 -- particularly the cloud version of Outlook -- is a natural way to build this functionality into the enterprise.
A key part of Office 365 is its integration of its collaboration technologies. The ability to create team discussion threads, follow them and manage them is fairly seamless. As it’s all part of the same user console, navigation is fairly easy.
Again: Microsoft has worked to make document sharing and management as easy and as intuitive as one could expect. We found it very easy and, frankly, fast to share even large documents via Office 365. No performance issues were noticed during our time testing it. Office 365 also allows for sharing to easily be limited to people inside or outside an organization on a person-by-person basis. Permissions can be easily set.
The calendaring function works as you’d be used to from Outlook and SharePoint services, with simple navigation and intuitive sharing features built in. Calendar items can be shared on an item-by-item basis, or entirely with others.
Creating and rendering personal or workgroup pages on the fly is a nice feature of this cloud-based product. As you can see, Office 365 pages allow for insertion of photos, calendars, shared documents, discussion threads and even blogs. Like other features of Office 365, this one is quick and snappy from what we saw and provided no latency -- even though it is hosted in a Microsoft data center.
User profiles in Office 365 are easy to set up, and can be populated with information including where a person sits within an organization -- just like on-premise versions of Microsoft technology. Status updates are intuitive and simple.
Microsoft engineers say they worked hard to keep the same, exact look and feel in Outlook for Office 365 as it has in Outlook for Office 2011 and some earlier versions. On this point, they hit the mark -- and it struck us as having, essentially, an identical look and feel. For a Web-based e-mail, calendaring and task application, it provides a nicer UI and more robust and intuitive functionality than, say, Google Apps and Gmail, in our opinion.
As Office 365 shows us, you can manage yourself -- and your account preferences and information -- right through the browser.
The bottom line: the functionality that Microsoft’s installed base has come to expect from on-premise versions of Exchange, SharePoint, OCS and more is largely intact after Microsoft has put it into the cloud under the name, Office 365. Over time, we’ll measure performance, scalability and flexibility -- as well as reliability.
For now, it looks like Office 365 has all the functions -- in the cloud -- to get down to business on earth.