Why the Office 365 beta is worth testing

I'm not reviewing the Office 365 beta this week. I haven’t banged on it enough to form a complete opinion yet. But Microsoft’s soon-to-be-released cloud services are incredibly promising. If your business runs on Microsoft Office, you owe it to yourself to do some serious testing.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

It’s hard to review any e-mail or productivity platform without actually using it. And by “using it,” I don’t mean “installing some beta code and banging on it for a few hours.” I mean using it, day in and day out, in a production environment, duplicating the volume and type of work you normally do.

That explains why I’m not reviewing Office 365 this week, despite the fact that I’ve had access to an account for several months, including a one-week head start on the rest of the population for the just-released beta. By my own definition, I haven’t banged on it enough to give you an honest buy/don’t buy decision.

But I can tell you—enthusiastically and without reservation—that Microsoft’s soon-to-be-released cloud services are incredibly promising. If your business runs on Microsoft Office, you owe it to yourself to do some serious testing in your own environment. That goes double if you currently have a Microsoft Exchange server on your premises.

My colleague Zack Whittaker has already put together a series of screenshot galleries showing off some of the key features of Office 365. The short version is that for a monthly subscription price of $6, a small business can have full access to Exchange (e-mail/calendar/contacts), SharePoint (document sharing and collaboration), and Lync (messaging and online meetings)—with Office Web Apps thrown into the picture. For higher monthly fees, enterprises can get more full-featured packages that includes the latest version of Microsoft Office.

Why is it a big deal—and why do I prefer this type of solution to Google Apps?

Here are four reasons in addition to what I consider a very fair price:

  • Great online/offline support. I’ve been using a hosted version of Microsoft Exchange 2010 through Intermedia (more coming up on that shortly). I hated Outlook Web Access in Exchange 2007 and earlier. The Outlook Web App in Exchange 2010 is a complete game-changer. It can match the desktop version of Outlook feature for feature, and it feels like an app, not a fancy web page.
  • No licensing hassles. The hidden nightmare of running your own Exchange server isn’t the cost (substantial) and complexity (equally substantial) of maintaining hardware and patching servers. No, the real headache is keeping track of Server Licenses and Client Access Licenses and External Connector Licenses. An Office 365 subscription doesn’t require any additional licenses. Pay your six bucks each month and you’re done.
  • Simple, clean, usable. My Windows 7 Inside Out co-authors and I used Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS) for collaborative portions of the first edition of our book in 2009. We elected not to use BPOS for our 2011 revision. Why? It was too expensive, too difficult to administer, and, frankly, ugly. Office 365 is easier to use and considerably cheaper. And the difference in design is substantial. This is a good-looking, well-designed, extremely usable product. That’s true both from the user’s perspective and from the administrative side.
  • Easy sharing with SharePoint. If you’re using Office tools—Word, Excel, PowerPoint—to plan and execute a project, SharePoint changes everything. It integrates well with the Office 2010 desktop apps and lets you preview and edit in the browser. (And yes, it appears to work without compromise in Firefox and Safari—Chrome, too, although that browser isn’t officially supported.) The best part is you can invite anyone to share documents on your SharePoint site; they don’t need to be Office 365 subscribers, and you don’t need to worry about licensing.

I’ve already found a few bugs in this beta. (My favorite is a prompt that appeared when I first signed on to my SharePoint site asking if I wanted to allow an ActiveX control called “Control name is not available” from a publisher named “Not Available.” Presumably that gets fixed soon. Real soon.)

Now that Office 365 is officially open as a beta, I’m ramping up my own testing. Later this afternoon, a colleague and I will be using Lync Online to test screen sharing, and I’ll be using a few of the 25 licenses included with the beta plan to add some outside partners to the mix.

If you want to sign up for the Office 365 beta, go here. If you do sign up, tell me about it in the Talkback section below. I’m especially interested in hearing what kind of testing you plan to do. If you’re interested but unable to sign up for the beta, what would you like to see me test?

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