Microsoft today announced an upgrade and rebranding of its Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) of cloud services, bringing its hosted Exchange Online and SharePoint Online offerings together with the cloud version of the recently renamed Lync communications platform (previously known as Office Communications Server). The package also includes support for Office Web Apps and licensing for the Office desktop suite. The beta programme includes small business and enterprise editions. Office 365 replaces the existing BPOS tools, Office Live Small Business and Live@edu platforms.
The new Exchange Online is based on Exchange 2010, and like its on-premises sibling gives you access to new scheduling features, along with MailTips for handling out-of-office messages and other common tasks. You'll get 25GB of storage with each Exchange Online account, and the service will also allow sending attachments as large as 25MB. It's also set up with antispam and antivirus tools, helping protect your network.
Like SharePoint 2010, SharePoint Online supports social features, and can also be used to manage a secure extranet for working with partners. As it's the latest version of SharePoint, it's also a host for Office Web Apps, giving Office 365 both an online editor for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, and support for collaboration using the desktop versions of the tools (one of the reasons why Office 365 now includes a per-user licence model for the Office Professional Plus suite). Small businesses will also be able to host web sites on the SharePoint Online service.
Lync Online offers the same PC-based audio, video and collaboration tools as the on-premises version (as much of it relies on the Office Communicator desktop tool, although a web-based client is also available). However you won't get its PABX integration features, not surprisingly, as this requires an on-site server. There's a lot to be said for using IM as a tool for collaboration, and Lync Online will let you federate with other Lync servers (both in the cloud and in the data centre), for conversations with customers and partners.
Pricing for the UK has yet to be announced, but the US service will have plans ranging from $2 to $27 per user per month, with the more expensive plans including access to the desktop Office suite, and the basic plans just offering web access to email. Microsoft is also offering a range of plans for what it's calling 'kiosk' workers — that is, workers without a dedicated computer. Kiosk workers will work with Office 365 using their browser, with Outlook Web Apps for email and the Office Web Apps for working with documents. Small businesses get free access to the cloud service for 30 days, with a $6 per user per month charge after that.
Like BPOS before it, there will be two routes to subscribing to Office 365. You'll be able to sign up directly on the site, or you'll be able to purchase a subscription (along with support services) from a Microsoft partner.
With Small Business Server 'Aurora' dependent on cloud services, Microsoft needed to produce a compelling new release of its hosted server suite. With a single management dashboard and well-defined pricing plans, this looks to be that release. You can sign up for the beta now at the Office 365 web site.