Office 365 is a suite of cloud-based services from Microsoft that offers access to business tools such as email, messaging, videoconferencing, collaboration and even browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, all on a subscription basis.
Available now, Office 365 comes on a number of different 'plans' at different price points. Most of the plans are aimed at large organisations, but one targets small businesses and another the education market.
We looked at the version for professionals and small businesses, known as Office 365 Plan P, which supports up to 25 users at £4 per user per month from Microsoft itself. It will also be offered by resellers and other service providers.
This version provides each user with email and calendar capabilities via a browser-based version of Outlook, instant messaging, video calls and online meetings via the downloadable Lync 2010, plus a hosted team SharePoint site for collaboration and shared documents.
Documents in SharePoint can also be created, viewed and edited via Microsoft's browser-based Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote Web Apps, while this version of Office 365 also includes a web site that can be customised to act as a basic public-facing web presence for the company.
Overall, Office 365 seems like a good choice for a start-up company or small workgroup, making it quick and easy to provide an email account and office applications for a small number of workers.
In particular, little IT knowledge is required to provision each user. The process is largely automated at the datacentre back-end, the customer needing to do little more than provide a user name for each employee.
There is also no need to install and run servers for email and collaboration, and Microsoft takes care of maintenance and upgrades, making this Office 365 plan suitable for companies where the owner is the administrator or there are few dedicated IT staff.
For larger organisations, Office 365 is more likely to be seen as complementing on-premise Microsoft infrastructure, perhaps as a low-cost option for workers who do not require the Office desktop applications.
However, it should be noted that, even for small businesses, Microsoft recommends that customers deploy the desktop Office 2010 suite to users who will be working with documents much of the time, and these applications are not included in the Plan P version of Office 365.
In our tests using the beta version of Office 365, we were able to get up and running within minutes of signing up for an account, and were soon able to add and configure users within our test domain.
The sign-up web page asked us to supply a name for the organisation, and to set up a Microsoft Online Services username and password for the administrator account.
With our test account, the organisation name was appended to the 'onmicrosoft.com' URL to form the complete domain name, which is also used for email addresses. It is worth bearing this in mind, as users need to type out their full email address to sign in to their account, and they can easily become lengthy if you specify a long organisation name.
Once these details were supplied, we were able to log in to the Office 365 portal as administrator and begin adding users. Again, this was a fairly simple process, and you can in fact get away with just specifying the user's name, although additional information such as job title, department and phone number can be supplied at this point if required.
Office 365 then sets up the new user account and emails the log-in details, including a temporary password, to the administrator account. As administrator, you can print this out and hand it to the user, or you can have it sent to one or more extra email addresses, which allows you to deliver the information to remote workers or an employee's own email account.