I’ve been playing with the Office 365 beta for a few months now and with Microsoft officially launching the service, I feel I can share some of my experiences with you. As it’s initial volley against other document and collaboration services that are in the cloud (i.e. Google Docs), it’s off to a good start. With the service you’re basically getting the “All Star” of the Office family in a hosted environment where much of the tedious and complex administration is done for you. Here’s a run down on the services you can obtain from Microsoft’s cloud service:
- Office Professional Plus
- Office Web Apps
- Exchange Online
- Sharepoint Online
- Lync Online
Office Professional Plus
This is your Microsoft Office Native desktop applications that many are comfortable with today. The advantage is that these applications can be deployed to end-users machines from the “cloud” without your IT department’s involvement. There’s a little application that tries to connect about every 30 days to make sure that license is up to date and that you have the most up-to-date versions of the applications meaning that you’re always going to have any security patches applied to your applications without having to worry about it.
Office Web Apps
If you need to modify documents on Sharepoint Online but don’t have the native desktop applications available to you, you can use the Office Web Apps to do it for you. The majority of the web apps are available, but for some reason OneNote appears to be missing – what’s even more strange is that on SkyDrive, there is a OneNote web app available. Most of the functionality is available regardless of browser that you are using (and it works remarkably well in Google Chrome), but you’re going to miss some functionality if you don’t use Internet Explorer.
Now you can have your Outlook available on-line on the web. What is even better news is if you’re running Exchange locally on your network you can synchronize / federate it with the Office 365 service! Fantastic for account administration – do it once and not have to worry about modifying users in multiple places. The Outlook implementation works extremely well, giving you almost the native application look and feel with some cosmetic improvements.
Ask the majority of IT administrators and they’ll tell you that administering and keeping their Sharepoint system up and running is one of their biggest headaches. Now they don’t need to do any of the grunt work – instantiate a site and boom you’re off and running. This is where you’ll do most of your document collaboration and sharing from and where you’d access your web apps from.
This is probably the crown jewel of the Office 365 service; you can now have your hosted communications server in the cloud. Install the client locally on each machine, but the server remains in the cloud. Almost all of the functionality is available: chat, voice calling, desktop sharing, lync enabled meetings. There’s a few shortcomings i.e. no automated agent functionality, but they can be overlooked as this is such a powerful tool that you’re practically saving money just by getting your Lync server hosted by Microsoft!
So the lineup that Microsoft has out the gate is extremely strong. Each of the applications work extremely well like their desktop counterparts, but that’s also it greatest weakness currently – they doesn’t appear to have any cohesiveness i.e. they don’t appear to work well together. Here’s a few examples:
If I start a sharepoint site and want to create a document, the only option that I have is to create a Word Document (.docx) and then if you have the MS Word native application installed it downloads the template to your computer and fires up the application. There’s no option to just create a document and start it off using the Web App (Apparently you have to uninstall your native applications to get the option to use the Web App)! Also starting the documentation creation in Sharepoint online, you have to explicitly tell MS Word that you are saving it on your Sharepoint site otherwise it just saves the document locally on your computer – it should have been contextually aware that you want to save it in the cloud. There needs to be an easier way of creating documents and I’m surprised that this functionality isn’t available since it is on Skydrive you can create Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote documents without having to launch any native application or upload any files to the Sharepoint site to initialize it.
There also appears to be no easy way to share my sharepoint calendar to my Exchange online calendar – sure I can synchronize it to my locally installed Outlook and if I’m federated the calendar will appear online, but I can’t get do the association without doing it first in the Desktop application.
Office Web Apps
Microsoft has done an unbelievable job with their Web Apps. They appear extremely polished and work almost identically to their native desktop cousins. My only complaint is the missing OneNote Web Application – no matter what I do, Sharepoint wants me to only edit these documents only with the Native application. Again, SkyDrive as a OneNote web application, why it isn’t easily accessible from the Office 365 service is a mystery.
I’m still not easily able to get my sharepoint calendar to appear within Exchange Online using the Outlook Web App. I can get a list of all the other users and have their calendars appear, I can subscribe to external calendars which have iCal feeds without issue, but Sharepoint group calendars seems to be an oddity. I can’t even use the URL provided that my Native Outlook client would use. Microsoft, please fix this and make it easy to locate Sharepoint group calendars from the Outlook Web App.
Office Web Apps
My only beef is that Office Web Apps can only be accessed through Sharepoint Online and that there’s no easy way to create document with a Web App – you have to do this through desktop applications or upload a file of the type you want created. This is just backward. There is also no personal file storage with the Office 365 service i.e. I may have personal files that I want to store in the cloud and in order to do this I need a personal Sharepoint site which is overkill for what a lot of people need. Your travelling road warrior will still need to save those files to his laptop which defeats the purpose of the cloud.
A solid first outing for Microsoft; if they can resolve some of the usability issues and limitations they’ll have something that scores a home run against Google.