Microsoft Office 365 beta

Microsoft Office 365: The suite of cloud-based business applications offers definite advantages -- if the rough edges can be smoothed out.

Microsoft Office 365 beta
  • Microsoft Office 365 beta
  • Microsoft Office 365 beta
  • Microsoft Office 365 beta
  • Expert Rating

    3.50 / 5


  • more powerful than its chief competitor, Google Apps...


  • ...but more difficult and confusing to use as well

Bottom Line

Companies that want an all-in-one suite of the hosted versions of Microsoft's communications and collaboration servers should take a look at Office 365. It's a compelling offering, particularly for small and midsize companies.

Would you buy this?

  • Price

    TBA (AUD)

Administrative e-mail tools

Even though Exchange 365 is hosted in the cloud, rather than on your company's server, you still get a full suite of administrative tools. You can easily add new Outlook users, either singly or in bulk (via .CSV files), determine whether users get administrative rights, and so on.

There are also tools for migrating in-boxes from a company's server-based version of Exchange to the Office 365 cloud-based version. These tools won't work for people who have been using Outlook in concert with POP3-based mail, though. There is a migration tool for IMAP accounts, although that requires a bit of extra work.

You'll also find a variety of more sophisticated tools as well — for example, you can set group permissions for performing tasks such as allowing people to search across multiple mailboxes. In short, you get the kind of administrative tools you expect with Exchange, even though you don't host Exchange yourself.

Unfortunately, this is also one of many examples of the poor overall integration in the Office 365 beta. When you're on the pages for managing Exchange, there's no navigation to any other part of Office 365 — essentially you're in a silo that appears to be a dead end. You have to navigate back to Outlook, and from there use site-wide navigation. This is a problem that appears time and again throughout the suite.

Team Sites

Office 365 also offers a hosted version of SharePoint, which allows you to build team sites where everyone in your organization can collaborate on documents and share a common document library.

Creating and designing a new team site is surprisingly easy. You choose a design, theme color and so on, and then add elements such as images, tables and document libraries. Adding documents to a team site is exceptionally easy: Click an Add Document button, choose the file you want to upload, and your work is done.

Office 365 gives you a great deal of control over your team sites, far more than most organizations will ever use. You can, for example, set up groups with specific permissions, and then assign people to those groups. You can customize document permissions to an extremely fine degree — for example, giving some people read-only access, others full control, others only the ability to contribute but not make edits, and so on. You control who can access the site and who can't.

In short, you get all the usual SharePoint tools, including the ability to share documents with those outside your organization. Team sites also include version control functionality, so documents can be checked into and out of libraries, to ensure that people can't overwrite one another's work.

Office Web Apps

Microsoft has forged links between Microsoft Office and team sites in Office 365. When you click on a document in a team site, you can open and edit it in Office, and then save it back to the team site. In addition, if you use Microsoft Office Professional Plus, which includes Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010, you can get access to team sites and their document libraries when you're offline by syncing to them when you're online, using them offline, and then resyncing when you're back online again. And you can also publish Access databases to SharePoint Online and allow people to get access to those databases from a Web browser.

According to Microsoft, you should be able to use Office Web Apps for reading, editing and creating documents on team sites, and you should be able to allow several people to work collaboratively on the same document simultaneously. I was unable to get that to work on my test machines. However, this may have been an anomaly on my part.

Office 365's flawed integration is especially evident in SharePoint. Once you enter SharePoint, you frequently lose navigation to the rest of Office 365 — you appear to be in SharePoint alone. Even navigating to different parts of SharePoint itself is confusing, because you'll often have to use your browser's back button rather than SharePoint-specific navigation.

Web sites — the weak link

Office 365 includes tools for building Web sites, and this is very clearly the weak link in the chain.

If you use Office 365 for e-mail, SharePoint and other services, you also have to use Office 365's built-in tools for building and managing your Web site. Why? Because when you port your domain over to Office 365, Microsoft hosts both your Web site and your e-mail. Office 365 doesn't include a feature that simply lets you post your own HTML and Web-based applications to a Web server.

So if you've built a Web site with other tools, have a Web development team, or have hired an outside firm to build a site for you, you're out of luck — you can't build your own site and then have it hosted on Office 365. Microsoft says that you may eventually be able to use a work-around in which only your mail is hosted on Office 365 and your Web site can remain elsewhere, but there are no details yet.

The site-building tools are simplistic and template-driven, so your site will end up looking generic, with only images and text to distinguish it. There are the usual "About Us," "Contact Us," "Site Map" and "Member Login" navigation links, several preset "zones" where you can place content and so on. You can choose from a variety of different themes that will populate the site with graphics, and there are plenty of these, ranging from accounting to lawn and garden — but since this is a beta, many of the themes are missing. You can also choose from a number of basic layouts such as one-column, two-column, three-column and so on. And you can define your own custom style sheets and change the background.

On the upside, changing the text is as simple as typing, and publishing is as simple as pressing a button after you've made all your changes. You can also easily preview everything before you publish.

So if you don't yet have a Web site and are looking to get one up and running with the minimum fuss, you may be satisfied, if a generic-looking site is all you need. But those who want something more sophisticated than a fill-in-the-blanks approach will not be pleased.

Microsoft would do well to give people the option to design and post their own sites using their own tools, and allow Office 365 to function as a traditional hosting service, not one that forces you to use predesigned templates.

Using Lync

Office 365 also includes Lync, Microsoft's service for setting up online meetings, detecting the presence of other employees in an organization and communicating via instant messaging. It's a hosted, updated version of what was previously called Microsoft Communications Server. Especially useful is the ability to view "presence" information for authors of documents hosted on a team site, so that you can see when they are online and available for a chat or online meeting.

Overall organization

Office 365's biggest problem is how easily it is to become lost while navigating and not be able to get back to a different part of the suite. Depending on where you are at the moment, there may or may not be sitewide navigation. For example, when you're building your Web site, there's no navigation away from the site-building tool; you have to use your browser's back button to get back to wherever you were before you started building the site.

Similarly, when you're building a team site using SharePoint tools — for example, on the page setting permissions — you can directly navigate only to certain portions of Office 365, and you have to use your back button more than you want. It's also easy to become lost and forget exactly where you came from, because there are often no clues about where you've been. You'll find similar problems at other places as well, such as when you're managing groups in the Exchange administrative tools section.

This gives Office 365 the feel of a group of separate apps and services that are only partially integrated; the suite is essentially a collection of existing services with only some common navigation. Keep in mind, however, that Office 365 is still in beta; the navigation and other issues may be fixed when the final version is released.

The bottom line

Office 365 is certainly more powerful than its chief competitor, Google Apps, but more difficult and confusing to use as well. And Office 365 would likely be overkill for some businesses, especially smaller ones. Still, for companies that need all of its power and are willing to put up with sometimes frustrating navigation and a potentially long learning curve, it can be a worthwhile productivity-booster and money-saver.

Companies that want an all-in-one suite of the hosted versions of Microsoft's communications and collaboration servers should take a look at Office 365. It's a compelling offering, particularly for small and midsize companies.

Organizations will also have to balance whether the suite's Web-site-building capabilities are up to their standards. Microsoft would do well to offer a version of Office 365 that includes the ability to host Web sites and not force companies to use rudimentary Web-building tools. And it should turn Office 365 into a true, integrated offering, rather than a set of tools that co-exist uneasily. If it did all that, Office 365 would be quite useful.

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