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Microsoft recently launched Office 365 as a way for small businesses easily and affordably access productivity tools online through a web browser.  Office 365 includes Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.  Also included is an online Outlook account for email and shared calendar with 25 GB of storage, more than enough for almost all users.

The behavior of Office 365 is very similar to the Office products that are commonly installed on computers, with the only difference is that your files are stored in the cloud and accessible anywhere with a web browser. 

Office 365 also provides a Team Site powered by SharePoint.  If you are a SharePoint user, you will be familiar with the web collaboration functions that are available, including a branded web site, ability to add pages and the ability to post messages to the site.

Microsoft Lync is the rebranding of the former Unified Communications service, which combines voice and video conferencing, instant messaging, and web meetings for screen sharing.

As a user of both Office and Google Docs, I found there are some clear benefits and concerns for Office 365 for a small business user.

Benefits

The main feature that Office 365 brings to the party is that it is accessible anywhere. So you no longer have to sync your Office files to another service to have the ability access to them from the web. There is also no need for upgrades and patches. Since Office 365 is hosted, the software is patched and updated automatically.

Office 365 Word online

Office 365 Word online

Office 365's "killer" benefit (at least Microsoft hopes) is that it acts just like Microsoft Office. So it is easy get started quickly, with minimal training.

Finally, the cost for Office 365 is very affordable at $6 per user month.

Cautions

Of course, all is not perfect in the world of Office 365. First, its Office tools are stripped down for the web.  For example, Excel online does not have ability to do conditional formatting.

You also cannot have more than one person editing a document at the same time.  This is a feature I use heavily in Google Docs, and is useful for its spreadsheet application.

Office 365 Excel online

Office 365 Excel online

Next, Microsoft's SLA (Service Level Agreement) for Office 365 is not that great.  The promised 99.9% ("three nines") uptime means the service can have a downtime of 10 minutes per week, or 43 minutes per month. 

Service credits are 25% if availability is below 99.9%, 50% below 99% (down 7.2 hrs per month, or 1.7 hours per week) and 100% below 95% (down 36 hours per month, or 8.4 hours per week).  This is similar to the Google Docs SLA.

A real negative biggie is that visitors cannot access your documents.  I sent two invitations, and both were directed to create a (paying) Office 365 account.  In contrast, Google Docs can be shared with anyone; they just need a free Google account.

Office 365, specifically the Web Apps portion, like Google Docs, doesn't work if you're not connected to the cloud.  Google is targeting offline access this summer. But if you subscribe to "Office 365 for midsize businesses and enterprises", you'll get Office Professional Plus.

This is basically a subscription-based version of Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook) that will work without an Internet connection. But you'll pay $24 / month for this capability.

Another problem I ran into is that, unlike Google Docs, I was not able to perform an export in Office 365 of Word, Excel, or Powerpoint.  But if you use Internet Explorer and have Office installed, you can choose to “Open” the file in your Office application, which effectively downloads the file.

Office 365 Word online

Office 365 Team site online

Office 365 is a good start to a cloud services from Microsoft, and a good option if you are very familiar with Office and not comfortable with Google Docs.  Although there are drawbacks, like any cloud service, it is bound to improve over time.


Disclosure - Russell Wurth is Vice President of Product Management at Verecloud, a reseller of cloud services.

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