Office 365 is a suite of cloud-based services which makes it easier to view your emails, work on documents or collaborate with others, wherever you are in the world.
Purchasing Office 365 involves signing up to a particular plan, and there are several variations on offer, each offering a different mix of features. The baseline, though, is Plan P for professionals and small businesses, which offers more than enough features for most people at a subscription cost of £4.00 per user, per month.
There are also separate plans for midsize businesses and enterprises. The E1 plan offers Exchange Online, Lync Online and SharePoint Online at £6.50 per user per month, while the E3 plan costs £15.75 per user per month and features Exchange with unlimited storage, Lync, SharePoint and Office Professional Plus.
You'll be provided with an online version of Outlook, for instance, which you can use to read emails, and access your Outlook (2007 or 2010) calendar, contacts and tasks. Set a new task on your phone, say, and you'll be able to view it later on your laptop, PC or other devices. And you also get access to the Office Web Apps, online versions of Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint. These are a little cut down - you can't create charts in Web Excel, for instance, although it will properly display spreadsheets which contain them already - but otherwise use the same familiar interface as their desktop cousins.
Need to share and work on documents with others? That's not a problem. Sign up for Office 365 and you'll immediately be given a customisable web site (http://yourname.sharepoint.com). This will include a "team" area where you can save documents, just as though you were using a local drive, for others to access.
If your colleagues are some distance away, or you can't easily get together to plan what you're doing, then Microsoft's Lync Online may be able to help. The program enables you to connect with others through instant messaging or video calls, or you can hold full-featured online meetings, with audio, video, screen sharing and a virtual whiteboard.
And powering all this are online versions of Exchange and SharePoint, which provide very rich functionality in terms of managing email, sharing documents and generally keeping everything in sync across your devices, but without all the usual hassles of installing and managing a server. And this kind of saving on administration could be a real benefit to many small businesses. As when there's an upgrade to Office 365, say, there's no need to fire out discs to people, or worry that they're all working on the same version: Microsoft simply introduce an update on the server and that's what everyone will see, so maintenance is very straightforward.
Please note, while there is a 30-day trial available for Office 365, this doesn't require a download: you must instead sign up at the Microsoft site.