An Overview of Microsoft Office 365

Wednesday Nov 30th 2011 by Helen Bradley
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Helen Bradley explores Microsoft Office 365 and discusses how it might fit into your small business IT strategy.

Small businesses can save a good chunk of both time and money by using hosted software tools and harnessing the power of cloud computing. Software as a Service (SaaS) makes great sense for small businesses -- you only pay for what you need and someone else does the work of data backup, security and updates.

Microsoft recently launched Office 365, which is designed to meet small business software needs. While this might sound like merely an online version of Microsoft Office, the service is much more than that. In this article, I'll explain what Office 365 is, who it is designed for and how it might benefit your small business.

Microsoft Apps and Cloud Computing

Before launching Office 365, Microsoft already offered cloud computing options -- some of which you may already use. These include Windows Live SkyDrive and the new Office Web Apps which are online, cut-down free versions of Word 2010, PowerPoint 2010, Excel 2010 and OneNote 2010.

Note that Office 365 replaces both Microsoft Office Live Small Business and Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS).

So what is Office 365, what kind of software does it offer and can it meet your small business IT needs?

Office 365 Components

There are three versions of Office 365, one for small businesses, one for enterprise and one for education. There is no direct upgrade from small business to the enterprise version, so you want to choose the right one the first time. Luckily each version offers a 30-day free trial.

Office 365 for professionals and small business is designed to accommodate business with up to around 25 users, and it costs $6 per user per month. It includes the already-free Office Web Apps, Microsoft SharePoint Online, Microsoft Exchange Online and Microsoft Lync.

Office 365 for Enterprises adds desktop versions of Microsoft Office Professional and some other features. You can expect to see users of BPOS moving to Office 365 because the apps here are designed to work in the cloud and work seamlessly together.

Because the Web Apps are already free for anyone to use, I'll focus on the other features of Office 365 for small business. Lync, SharePoint and the Exchange Online tools are what you're paying for in Office 365.

Microsoft Exchange Online manages your business email and information such as scheduling and calendars and contact data. As part of Office 365, it comes with spam and virus protection and 25 GB of online email storage per user. It provides email access to employees using a range of machines including Mac, PC, Android, smart phones and other devices. Basically it handles your email sending, receiving and security so you don't have to do it.

Small businesses can save a good chunk of both time and money by using hosted software tools and harnessing the power of cloud computing. Software as a Service (SaaS) makes great sense for small businesses -- you only pay for what you need and someone else does the work of data backup, security and updates.

Microsoft recently launched Office 365, which is designed to meet small business software needs. While this might sound like merely an online version of Microsoft Office, the service is much more than that. In this article, I'll explain what Office 365 is, who it is designed for and how it might benefit your small business.

Microsoft Apps and Cloud Computing

Before launching Office 365, Microsoft already offered cloud computing options -- some of which you may already use. These include Windows Live SkyDrive and the new Office Web Apps which are online, cut-down free versions of Word 2010, PowerPoint 2010, Excel 2010 and OneNote 2010.

Note that Office 365 replaces both Microsoft Office Live Small Business and Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS).

So what is Office 365, what kind of software does it offer and can it meet your small business IT needs?

Office 365 Components

There are three versions of Office 365, one for small businesses, one for enterprise and one for education. There is no direct upgrade from small business to the enterprise version, so you want to choose the right one the first time. Luckily each version offers a 30-day free trial.

Office 365 for professionals and small business is designed to accommodate business with up to around 25 users, and it costs $6 per user per month. It includes the already-free Office Web Apps, Microsoft SharePoint Online, Microsoft Exchange Online and Microsoft Lync.

Office 365 for Enterprises adds desktop versions of Microsoft Office Professional and some other features. You can expect to see users of BPOS moving to Office 365 because the apps here are designed to work in the cloud and work seamlessly together.

Because the Web Apps are already free for anyone to use, I'll focus on the other features of Office 365 for small business. Lync, SharePoint and the Exchange Online tools are what you're paying for in Office 365.

Microsoft Exchange Online manages your business email and information such as scheduling and calendars and contact data. As part of Office 365, it comes with spam and virus protection and 25 GB of online email storage per user. It provides email access to employees using a range of machines including Mac, PC, Android, smart phones and other devices. Basically it handles your email sending, receiving and security so you don't have to do it.

Microsoft SharePoint Online handles sharing documents and collaboration. For example, a business can store all its templates and other documents centrally on the SharePoint site, which means anyone working anywhere in the world can access them provided they have access to the Internet via a Web browser.

You can also use SharePoint Online for collaboration. Employees in any location can work on shared documents without having to send them back and forth. You can also build a company intranet on SharePoint, which allows you to create an in-house portal for your business providing your employees with information and access to information that is important to them.

The intranet is easy to set up, and you add and manage only the content; Microsoft manages the access and hosting as part of the SharePoint setup. You also receive a bare-bones business website to customize if you desire.

Microsoft Lync Online is a communications system that includes tools for users to communicate with other users and potentially with Lync users in other businesses via audio and video streams, secure instant messaging as well as web conferencing.

Other than cost, support is the significant difference between the small business and enterprise editions. In the small business edition you get access to free online support, but it doesn't include dedicated IT staff. For the enterprise edition, you get access to advanced IT configuration and live 24/7 customer support.

In addition, the enterprise edition includes the standalone desktop version of Office Professional Plus -- offering more features than the cut-down Web apps. While you pay month-to-month for the small business service, you can choose between a monthly or annual contract for the enterprise edition and pay anything from $10 and $27 per user per month. Microsoft also offers an add-on kiosk worker plan for employees who share a computer and only need sporadic access to email and files. That feature costs $4- $10 per person, per month.

Even though the setup is designed to be simple, configuring Office 365 for your business will require some small business IT expertise to ensure a seamless transition from your existing system to the hosted online service. You need to set up employees with the required permissions and access to the tools and features they require.

Overall, you should see a reduced need for local small business IT support because a lot of the small business software you used to host and manage locally will be sourced from the cloud instead.

Small Business IT Benefits of Office 365

The benefits of Office 365 include the capability to affordably provide sophisticated features to your employees in the form of Exchange-based email, document sharing and centralized communication. These tools have traditionally been accessible only to big business, and now just about any business can afford them. That someone else manages the security, updating and backup needs also adds value.

Office 365 can support operating systems as old as Windows XP (SP3) and Mac OSX 10.5 (Leopard) and later, so it shouldn't require any hardware or software upgrade for most businesses.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com

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