Office 365 after a year: Worth it or not?

Office 365 after a year: Worth it or not?

Summary: ZDNet's David Gewirtz explores the offerings provided by Office 365 and shares with you, after a year of use, what aspects of the service proved to be valuable and what aspects proved to be either annoying or baffling.

TOPICS: Microsoft, Cloud

Office Web applications

One of Microsoft's selling claims for Office 365 is the availability of Office Web applications, similar to the suite of Web apps that Google offers.

Of the Office Web applications, the only one I have used is OWA (Outlook Web Application). Web implementation of Outlook is terrible. First, for some reason, its interface is entirely different (and less usable) than the interface for, and you can't use with Office 365. Go figure.

Second, as I said, the interface is terrible. You can't even specify the columns you want to see, so the bulk of the screen is filled with a subject line sitting on top of the sender name. No other particularly useful message information is provided without opening the message, and the application wastes tons of screen real estate.

There are arrow icons in messages, but they're for forwarding or replying, not for moving back and forth between messages. It is painful to use.

As for the other Office Web applications, the simple fact is I have yet to even launch them. You can't just login to your Office 365 account and launch an app. You have to go into OneDrive or SharePoint and then create a new application file. Too much work, especially since the Web variants are reportedly much weaker variants than the desktop editions.

After a year: I've been able to derive no value from these at all.

I judge the Office Web applications as a major disappointment. In particular, (which is a completely different app than OWA) showcases just how bad Outlook Web Application is. It's also disappointing that you can't use with Office 365.

Contacts and calendar

I'll be talking more about contacts in a future article. As it turns out, contacts in Office 365 sync nicely with the iPhone, but poorly (they lose categories) with Android devices. Disappointingly, given that Microsoft owns Skype, Skype contacts live in their own silo, and don't sync with Outlook contacts.

The Office calendar has improved over the years, but I use Google Calendar and completely ignore the Outlook calendar. When I made the decision to use the Google Calendar, there were some valuable features (emailed reminders) that didn't exist in Outlook's calendar. Some of those features have since been added.

Even so, my Google Calendar is so solid and useful that I haven't tried to fight to get the Outlook version up and running.

After a year: A solid and reliable Google Calendar has given me no reason to consider switching to Outlook, combined with Outlook's inability to share contacts with Skype.

I judge contacts and calendar as adequate, but not compelling.

OneDrive for Business

In typical Microsoft fashion, the company has OneDrive and OneDrive for Business -- and they're completely different beasts. When I first got my Office 365 account, OneDrive was called SkyDrive and OneDrive for Business was called SkyDrive Pro. Apparently, Microsoft had landed on someone else's trademark and had to change the name.

I don't use either service. I'll tell you why. When I first got Office 2013 with my Office 365 account, I tried to save my files to OneDrive (what was then called SkyDrive). The desktop applications wouldn't let me. That's because the OneDrive it wanted to save to was a consumer version of the service, so even though I had bought the business version of the service, the applications that came with the business version of the service couldn't save to that version of the service.

Still with me?

Microsoft has just announced that it's increasing the allocation of OneDrive for Business to 1TB, which is pretty impressive. Sadly, because OneDrive for Business is based on SharePoint, files uploaded to the service are slightly modified.

As a result, while I'd like to just dump my entire documents folder into a shared OneDrive for Business, I don't dare. I don't want all my carefully crafted code and files to be mucked with just because I might want to store it in Microsoft's cloud.

After a year: Microsoft's cloud offerings are still baffling and annoying. While the 1TB offering is generous indeed, its value is substantially diminished by the problematic rewriting of content stored using the service.

I judge OneDrive for Business a service Microsoft didn't have to screw up. If they just made it basically a Dropbox clone, it would be invaluable. Instead, there are two different versions, with logins that are incompatible, and you can't even save your Office 365 files to the OneDrive for Business you get with Office 365. Short answer: WTF?

Also, while we're on the subject of authentication, if you have an Office 365 account, you can't use that account to sign into Windows 8. Windows 8 requires your Microsoft account, which maps to OneDrive, not OneDrive for Business. It's as if Windows, the Office desktop apps, and OneDrive come from one company and the Office 365 service and One Drive for Business comes from another.

Next: Mobile versions of Office, SharePoint, and overall dollar value...

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at

Topics: Microsoft, Cloud


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Not fond of the licensing model.

    Most of the interactions I have with office are from colleagues that have difficulty opening current office XML-based formats, so it makes little sense to upgrade from 2010, the last version of a perpetual licensing model. Not enough new features to pay annual fees on for me. Then again, I tend to buy application software in 2x revisions and OSes current.
    • Not totally correct

      2012 is the last version you could get a perpetual license. You could get it both ways. I find there were enough improvements to jump form 2010 to 2012. Not sure if going from 2012 to 365 makes much difference. Also, I have never had any problems with the XML-format.

      Between my wife and I we work on 5 different computers. One has the 2012 perpetual and the other 4 are 365. It is great now to have Office on everything and not just a few of the computers. We use OneDrive heavily. It really ties all the computers together beautifully.

      The author David Gewirtz who admittedly used only 1/3 found it worth the money. We probably use about 2/3 and find it an even better value. If you have a lot of computers then Office365 is a bargain.
      • I believe it is 2013

        I believe it is Office 2013, not 2012, that has a perpetual license.
  • The software licensing model works only for Fortune 500 companies, IMO.

    All other individuals can receive the same Office App value from bundled Office Suite apps - for example, those versions of Office included in Surface ARM tablets or Intel Atom powered 8" tablet models.

    I suspect, David, that had you purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro (as I did) and used it with an extended monitor from one of your large screen display units (with a blue tooth keyboard and mouse to complete the system), you would have derived just as much value from that version of Office as you did with your Office 365 subscription version. (BTW, I also have Office 365 and have been wondering, lately, WHY I still have it.)

    Besides, in two years, you would essentially receive a free tablet in lieu of continuing your Office 365 subscription.
    • Office for Home & Student on Dell Venue 8 Pro

      is not to be used for business so this is not a valid point to make to the author. It also lacks a monitor output but maybe you could use Miracast.
  • No Thanks

    Rent model does not work out to value for the consumer.
    • It's a service

      that you subscribe to. Not any different than other subscription plans in all areas of life.
      • Lease vs buy decisions are very common, what's different

        here is that the option to buy has been removed. Therefore, one can't judge which pathway offers better value. Unlike a public utility such as the electric company or cable TV company, there are no regulatory constraints on what could be charged for this bundle, which suggests that once the purchased copies of Office have largely disappeared, there's nothing stopping MS from raising subscription prices substantially. The only way to stop this is to decline to subscribe and seek alternatives. For some, that's not going to work out very well, for others, it very well might, it depends on how wedded to some special features of Office that aren't well or at all duplicated elsewhere.
        • Model

          David G. brings up some good points. I use Visio and Project extensively plus some serious PP for ERP Change Management. This alone makes 365 a dead issue. For me.
        • LibreOffice will stop subscription price craziness...

          It keeps getting better and better, and it does all the basic MS formats. Yes, there are differences, so if you have to have a certain thing LibreOffice doesn't do, buy something that comes with an Office 365 license.
    • It depends. The more computers you own at a time, the less you will ...

      ... spend by subscribing. If you typically keep a PC for five years and you only own one PC, subscribing to Office 365 Personal will save you about $50.

      If you own two PCs, and you use Office Professional, over five years, your subscription to Office 365 Home will save you $300. Over seven years, you will still save $100 by subscribing.

      If you own three PCs (not uncommon in families with kids), over five years, you would save $700. Over seven years, you would save $500.

      If you own five PCs, over five years your subscription would save you $1500. Even if you only needed Office Home & Student, your subscription would save you $200. Over seven years, you would still break even.

      Unless your needs are very limited, subscribing is a very good deal. Of course, there are (and will always be) less expensive alternatives to a subscription to Microsoft Office. But if it is Office you want, Microsoft is offering a very attractive option.
      M Wagner
      • math?

        Office 365 Personal cost US$70/year. Office 2013 Home & Student costs US$80. Both are NONCOMMERCIAL USE licenses? Were you comparing the Office 365 Personal apple to the Office 2013 Professional orange?
    • No Thanks - More for functionality

      Okay, so I do lean more towards the "buy" side of things, but really that on it's own really only is a leaning, which can be overcome by how good the SERVICE is.

      But really Office 365 AS A SERVICE is not worth renting. Here's why, using David's own words...

      David mentions something in passing that is a HUGE headache when you're using Exchange alone: "Spam management is mediocre"... The fact that he's gotten so used to it that it doesn't bother him that much speaks to how much a person can tolerate given enough time. Once I put a real antispam product (ASSP which is free and highly recommended) in front of our Exchange service, people were amazed at how little spam got through. Google's antispam is even better than that. SPAM is a huge time waster, so as a SERVICE, Exchange is a FAIL for that one point alone. I tolerate Exchange as a PRODUCT because I can modify it's configuration, putting another service in front of it.

      "Office 365's support services to be barely tolerable" Ummm... yeah, this plus #1 would already be prompting us to evaluating alternatives

      Since Exchange Service is a joke, and Support Service is a joke, then there is no value in them, and thus David is really spending $360/year for Office software... Software that worked just the same in 2010 as it does now, and which he could have bought for about $120 OEM, 4 years ago. So lets see... 6 licenses, and lets just bump it up a little to $150 each, is $900 for Office software that works for at least 5-6 years. OR pay $1440 over the past 4 years for the same mediocre software...

      This is only on the first page, and it shows Office365 as a FAIL.
      Technical John
  • I like to "own" my software...

    I pay enough to Time Warner, Verizon, Netflix and other "product as a service" companies. I want to OWN my software.
    • I understood that you only own a license to operate software.

      I think the only way you can OWN software is to create it. If it is copyrighted by you then you can do with it as you wish.
      Then there is open source. You can't OWN that because it is public.
      • Yes, but you know what he means. Pay me now or pay me later.

        The bottom line is that the more computers you own, the more you save by subscribing. Most people (and businesses) get five to seven years out of their computers. Microsoft has fashioned a break-even point of 3 to 5 computers over five to seven years depending upon which edition of Office you would otherwise buy.
        M Wagner
        • Not home users

          Most home users I know got by for 5+ years with the one to three installs of a $129 copy of Office Student and Teacher addition. Office 365 is not a good value for the majority of these people.
          • I agree and would go further

            I only use Word and XL at work. At home, for the one or two letterS I have to write each year - wordpad would suffice. I actually haven't had to write anything major since I got out of college. Open Office works fine for my limited needs (I find Libre Office too slow). I haven't purchased an office suite in 14 years - last one was Corel Office (Word Perfect) because it was 1/8 the price of the student MS Office at the time and suited my college essay needs just fine.

            I suspect this is the way most people are. Office productivity suites just aren't used much at home. If I started a home business however and had to collaborate with others then I think this Office 365 suite can be beneficial. As for MS cloud services I am pretty happy with One drive - though it would be nice if they matched Amazon and Googles cloud drive pricing.
    • Things are changing

      Yours was the prevailing sentiment ten years ago when subscription services were first tried and failed.

      Today more people seem willing and even excited to use them because of the convenience of storing things on the cloud. I think it has to do with the fact that internet connections are much more mature now, more reliable and fast enough to be useful.

      Still, I totally understand where you're coming from.
      • True, the cloud's the thing

        but only if storing and retrieving files is as seamless and elegant as Dropbox. Microsoft blew it as soon as they created business vs consumer silos and followed non-parallel paths for each. To me that's incomprehensible.

        For sure your Fortune 500 company has it's own license and locations and if you have a personal license as well those files won't be in the same location. But it should all work the same way and be transparent to you. Google has that and so does Apple for it's limited cloud offerings.