Office365: Microsoft Office Meets the Cloud

While it’s not trendy or cool to be fans of products from stable of Microsoft, they do make some awesome apps both for home and enterprise use. They deserve a pat on the back for taking computers to the masses and making them more user friendly. Windows operating system and the Office productivity suites are two path breaking software products that every living soul knows about.

Of late, Google is chewing into Microsoft Office’s market share with its free and ultra cheap versions of Google Docs. While still not a billion dollar business, online Office suites are gaining traction and Zoho and Google Apps are two clear leaders in this space. Forced into a corner, Microsoft has launched it’s own version of online Office apps. Is it as awesome and powerful as the desktop counterpart?

Overview

Office 365: Ready for Business

From Outlook to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and SharePoint, Microsoft has brought all the weapons from its arsenal online in the form of Office365. And the beauty of it is, you can access these apps from any Internet connected device, including smartphones (Blackberry, Android and iOS). In fact, the hosted Exchange lets you get a first-class push email, contacts, and calendar experience on any popular mobile email client today. For users and businesses that have relied on Windows and Office for years, this represents an opportunity to get the same apps and features they’ve come to expect, no matter what platform they’re using.

Pricing

In true Microsoft style, they have multiple versions of the app and multiple tiered pricing plans. But the one that will suit many of us, the Office 365 for professionals and small businesses, costs $6 per user per month. This is a dollar more expensive than what the paid Google Apps account costs on a month to month basis. There is a 30 day free trial for small business accounts, so you can give it a spin and see if it will work for your organization before investing in it.

Editor’s note: It is worth noting that Microsoft also offers free versions of the Office Web Apps with Skydrive, which is integrated with their consumer-focused Hotmail email service. Here, though, we’re comparing Apples to Apples, and Office 365 would compare to Google Apps Professional.

Signing Up

The sign up form looks rather simple but comes with some caveats. Ensure that your country name (which is automatically selected based on the IP address) is correct, or you may be locked out of certain services and might have to pay some taxes that aren’t levied in your country. The choice of country cannot be changed once the account is created. I never saw any such horrendous disclaimers while signing up for Google Docs. Anyway, I chose to give them the benefit of doubt.

While signing up you get to choose the sub-domain representing your brand. Then you can create your the Microsoft online services ID, which essentially acts as the admin account and can be used to login everytime into the control panel. It’s understandable and a lot of web apps use a similar methodology, but Microsoft has a way of making everything sound so complicated!

I will have to applaud Microsoft, though, for making users create a strong password with lower and upper case alphabets in addition to the special characters. It’s a bit annoying, but nothing should be an inconvenience when you are trying to secure your business documents and communications.

User Interface

Launch Screen

Launch Screen

Even without the need for email verification, you will be automatically logged into your account. It takes a few minutes for the services and apps to be set up for your account. So grab a cup of coffee or try checking out the neatly compiled product tours to get a grasp of the online Office suite. I felt that the design is rather user friendly, but the choice of colors really isn’t. It’s a bit too orangey over here!

Outlook

Outlook Inbox

Outlook Inbox

First things first. Sending and receiving emails using Outlook isn’t as fast as you have experienced with Gmail, and the web version is no exception. If you have worked in a company, you will know what I am referring to. It takes a couple of minutes before the message is sent out or received. Except for the Compose window that pops up, I found the app to have same native feel of Outlook.

Compose Window

Compose Window

For those system admins out there, there are plenty of customization and control options to restrict unsuspecting employees. It might not be as comprehensive as the one behind the local firewall, but has all vital features like groups, domains, roles, auditing, blocked addresses etc. Unlike Google Docs (where you will have to pay extra on top of the subscription charges), all these features are bundled into each account.

Mail Control Panel

Mail Control Panel

Office Apps

Creating a Word document happens from a pretty arcane page without any design elements other than a text box, but it redirects to a pretty cool and familiar Office interface.

Word Document

Word Document

All Word documents created are in the .docx format. Despite the hype and a familiar interface, the app is a total letdown. Yes, one can create, edit and stylize a Word document on the go, but that’s all about it! There aren’t any ground breaking features at all. In fact, Google Docs and Office 365 have almost the same set of features, and Google Docs works much better for collaboration and real-time editing.

Excel Spreadsheet

Excel Spreadsheet

In the case of Excel and PowerPoint too, the presence (or in fact the absence) of the features is strikingly similar. In my opinion, Google Spreadsheets have a better feature set. The ability to insert anything into a spreadsheet is one such example: Google Docs lets you insert charts, scripts, forms, and more, while Excel online only support standard spreadsheet tables.

SharePoint Portal

SharePoint Portal

The SharePoint portal that facilitates sharing is no match to the elegance of the full version. Access to page revision history, page permissions, setting alerts etc. are some of the cool features, but in retrospect these are just the same set of features available in Google Sites. It’s disheartening to see that even their most web-focused product has been stripped down to the mininum in Office 365.

Final Thoughts

Except for a familiar interface from a familiar company, there is nothing going for Office 365. It’s disheartening to see the pioneer of desktop productivity has launched a stripped down version of an iconic product. I guess at this moment Microsoft’s strategy is to match all the features of Google Docs, and nothing more. That way, they can trick those who plan to opt for Google Docs, all the while selling souped up desktop versions to those who want to do more. As for me, without some mind blowing features, I am sticking with good old Google Docs for the time being.

Share Your Thoughts!

So how comfortable are you with using a cloud based office productivity suite? Do you think Office 365 is competent enough to finally let go of the desktop version? Or have you already switched to non-Microsoft tools and never plan to return?


Summary

Office 365 strives to provide users with virtually anywhere-access to email, important documents, contacts, and calendars on nearly any device.

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