With the public launch of its new Office 365 business plans, Microsoft's move into a subscription-based Office is nearly complete. How much technical skill does it take to set up and run one of these plans? Here's a hands-on look.
Yes, you can still buy perpetual licenses for the Office programs, but it’s clear that the future of Office, for consumers and small businesses and enterprises, is measured out by the month (with appropriate discounts for annual subscriptions). In exchange, your business gets enterprise-class mail and file storage services to go with the Office 2013 desktop programs.
I’ve been testing the entire Office 365 family for the past few months, starting with the already released Office 365 Home Premium and working my way up more recently to the new business editions. This post contains a capsule review of the new editions.
Unlike Office 365 Home Premium, which uses a free Microsoft account and is aimed at families, the new business editions require organizational accounts. They come with Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Lync as part of a package that also includes the new Office 2013 desktop programs.
The difference between Office 365 Small Business Premium and Office 365 Enterprise is twofold:
The Small Business Premium package (P2) tops out at 25 users. There’s no minimum number of users, which means you can pick up a single user license, at a cost of $15 per month or $150 per year, attach your own domain name, and get straight to work on up to five devices.
The Office 365 Midsize Business plan scales up to 300 users. If your business is larger, you need the Enterprise (E3) plan, which can scale up for organizations of any size. These plans include a much richer feature set (Active Directory integration, for example) with a correspondingly more complex administration console. They also carry a higher price tag than the Small Business Premium plan: $15 and $20 per user per month, respectively.
All of the business packages include the right for each user with an assigned license to install Office 365 Pro Plus on up to five devices. Each user can activate and deactivate licenses as they wish, transferring licenses between different PCs and Macs without restriction. Enterprise administrators can control this process through policy; Small Business admins have no such option
You’ll need some technical knowledge to set up an Office 365 Small Business Premium plan, but many administration tasks are wizard-driven and a Getting Started page walks you through most of the essential tasks.
By contrast, the Enterprise dashboard is much more detailed, with opportunities for granular control of policies. The opening screen displays the current health of online services, with links to display recent problems with services or user accounts.
Here are some of the individual tasks you’ll tackle as an Office 365 administrator:
When you sign up for a business Office 365 plan, you’re initially assigned a subdomain, in the form example.onmicrosoft.com. To make the account more business friendly, you'll want to assign your own domain (or domains) to it. That way your users get email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the Small Business Premium plan, you can completely delegate DNS administration to Microsoft, which requires only bare minimum of tinkering with DNS records. By contrast, the DNS setup for an Enterprise account assumes that you'll want to manage your own DNS records. That means setting up at least seven separate DNS records to handle mail and messaging.
If you've set up DNS records before, the process isn't particularly difficult, and an online troubleshooter can identify most common problems. It took me a matter of minutes to set up DNS for my test accounts.
Creating user accounts and assigning licenses
Adding a new user in the Small Business admin console is a dead simple process. Enter a first and last name and the display name that will appear in the directory, and then assign an email address, using any of the domains you've attached to the account.
Walk through the remainder of the wizard's five steps to assign a license to the user and send an email with a temporary password.
The process for a creating a new user in an enterprise plan is nearly identical, with the single exception that the licensing assignment allows you to select or exclude individual services.
The user experience
Microsoft has transformed Office.com into a portal for Office 365 subscribers. When you sign in at Office.com with your organizational credentials, the display you see is dramatically different from the one that Office 365 Home Premium users see.
Here's my personalized home page, with a list of documents created and stored in SharePoint.
Individual users with assigned Small Business Premium licenses can install the latest version of Office from this page.
The other big difference from a Home Premium account is the navigation bar along the top of the page. Where Home Premium users see links to the free Hotmail and SkyDrive services, business users get links to Outlook Web Access, online calendars and address books, and SharePoint (confusingly also called SkyDrive).
I'll have a closer look at those services and at some of the subtle improvements in Office 2013 in a follow-up post.