Office 365: three questions for small businesses

Microsoft has officially removed the beta label from its Office 365 service, but a few questions remain for small businesses. What's on the roadmap? Where's the support? And is SharePoint security a serious issue?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

I’m at the Office 365 launch event in New York City today, where Microsoft officially removed the beta label from its cloud-based, business-focused suite of online services.

My colleague Mary Jo Foley has been keeping up with the Office 365 news for the past few months. If you need a quick refresher, check her latest post, which will give you the who, what, and “how much?” side of the story.

Steve Ballmer’s press conference (with an accompanying demo by Corporate VP Kirk Koenigsbauer) was a lightning-fast run-through of Office 365 features. I’ve been using the service as a beta customer since April, and it’s been impressively stable and easy to use. I’ll have a more detailed look at the entire service next week.

Meanwhile, I have three questions that weren’t answered—or even mentioned—in today’s presentation. I had a chance to talk today with John Betz, Microsoft’s Director of Online Services, to get some of those answers.

What’s the support story?

Ballmer’s presentation today focused on Office 365 as a solution for small and medium-sized businesses. “Even the smallest businesses” can use these tools, he said, with a particular nod to “companies with little or no IT support.”

Indeed, setting up a new account is simple enough, and anyone who’s used Microsoft Outlook can probably dive right into the e-mail without missing a beat. But other tools are less familiar—it’s likely that most new customers from small businesses will be seeing SharePoint and Lync (the messaging/collaboration component) for the first time.

If they run into problems, where do they go for help? Telephone support is available for enterprise customers, but small businesses who sign up for the lower-cost P-series plans are limited to community support from online forums. Ultimately, Betz told me, the goal is to “build up the community” so that those new customers can get the answers they need quickly.

What’s the development roadmap?

Tellingly, Ballmer didn’t even hint at any changes to come. One of the biggest missing pieces is in SharePoint Online, where the feature set is limited compared to the on-premises version. That’s in contrast to Exchange Online, which is nearly feature complete compared to its on-premises counterpart. Is there a plan to build up SharePoint’s feature set?

The short answer is yes, according to Betz, who notes that Office 365 will get updates roughly every 90 days. The goal is for SharePoint Online to have features that are identical with the on-premises version, giving customers “the option to choose on the basis of delivery mechanism, not features.”

Similarly, Windows 8, with a new “touch first” interface and extensive online hooks, has already been publicly demoed. If you sign up as an early adopter of Office 365, can you expect new features? Are there plans to enhance the Office 365 services for upcoming releases? “That’s a logical expectation,” Betz told me.

I guess we’ll have to wait until fall for more specific answers.

Are small businesses second-class citizens for security?

If you sign up for one of the Office 365  Enterprise plans, all your users can connect to SharePoint using secure (HTTPS) connections. If you have a Professional (small business) plan, you don’t get that capability. For a small business that deals with sensitive documents, that’s a potentially dangerous configuration.

On Microsoft’s community forums, I’ve already seen complaints from some beta testers, who call this issue a “showstopper.” Betz says Microsoft hasn’t heard that feedback yet, but the company is “absolutely committed to security and privacy” and can add that capability in a service update.

Which questions are on your list? Leave them in the Talkback section and I ‘ll see if I can get answers.

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