Microsoft Office 365 Review: The Apps You Know & Much More

Monday May 5th 2014
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Microsoft Office 365 Small Business Premium offers the familiar productivity software, plus a host of new features to streamline creation, collaboration and communication.

Don't let the familiar name fool you: Microsoft Office 365 Small Business Premium (SBP) isn't just another bundle of the company's desktop productivity applications. It's a suite of on-premises, cloud-based and mobile tools that let you share and connect with colleagues and customers.

Office 365 productivity software

Figure 1: Office Online has the same look, feel and features of the desktop version, so Office veterans don’t need to learn anything new.

In addition to the word processing, spreadsheet, email, and presentation programs you expect, this suite of small business productivity software and services also includes online storage and collaboration features; communication tools to handle email, IM and videoconferencing, and tools to build your website. The integrated approach lets you go with one vendor and pay one (reasonable) monthly bill, while giving you access to your files anywhere from just about any device.

The heart of Office SBP is, of course, the applications themselves. For each employee you sign up you'll receive a license key for the desktop version of Office 365. Each registered user will also have a Microsoft account login that gives him or her access to the cloud version of the application suite—Office Online. Registered users can download the mobile Office apps for viewing and editing documents on Windows Phone, iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Symbian OS smartphones and tablets.

Office 365: Getting Started

Figure 2: The Getting Started pane guides you through the steps to get you and your employees going with Office 365.

Your subscription also includes access to Microsoft's OneDrive for Business (formerly called SkyDrive Pro), a cloud storage/collaboration service with 25GB of online storage for each employee. For group collaboration, Office 365 SBP also delivers the cloud-based Team Sites service with 10GB of baseline storage plus 500MB of storage per employee.

The suite also includes both access to Microsoft's Lync service for HD videoconferencing and website hosting—complete with tools and customizable templates to build your site. The total cost for all of these services: $15 per employee per month (or an annual payment of $150 per user, which works out to $12.50 per month).

Microsoft Office 365 Setup and Management

If you are going to commit to Office 365 SBP, you'll want to set aside a couple of hours to set up and configure its various parts. Microsoft makes it as easy as possible, with a handy "Getting Started" panel on the main management page that outlines the tasks: Downloading Office 2013 and any desired mobile apps, setting up email, setting up the suite's collaboration features and building a website.

Office 365: Management menu

Figure 3: For subsequent administration of Office 365 SBP, simply visit the proper area on the Management page.

Each of those choices leads to subsequent pages that break down the chore into digestible step-by-step chunks, and video tutorials give you an overview so you know what to expect before you get started. The videos and other instructions are jargon-free, and they assume that you don't have a background in IT.

Your organization will also have a designated administrator—the first person who sets up an account under your subscription—for ongoing management. Again, that chore is made more palatable by a straightforward "Manage your organization" page that provides links to various settings.

Clicking on Service Settings brings you to page where you can manage features such as shared calendars, team sites, shared contacts (including whether to allow sharing of Facebook and LinkedIn contacts), spam filtering, mobile access and passwords. The Users & Groups area lets you add or delete people from your subscription. The Domains link leads you to the tools to manage the domain for your email and website; while the Website link lets you manage and edit your public site. There's also a Support link, where you can create and submit a service request should you need it.

Small Business Software at the Office and in the Cloud

The most familiar parts of the Office 365 SBP offering are also what make it stand out from the big-name competitors Microsoft faces in the cloud arena: No other company can deliver both cloud and desktop versions of the essential office applications.

Notably, with Office 365 SBP you don't get a bare-bones bundle: Each employee gets Office Professional 2013, which retails for $399. That suite includes Microsoft Word (for word processing), Excel (spreadsheets), Outlook (email, contacts and calendar), PowerPoint (presentations), Publisher (desktop publishing), OneNote (note-taking) and Access (database).

If you're upgrading from an earlier version of Microsoft Office, you'll find hundreds of new features spread across those applications, as well as a tweaked user interface design that mimics the feel of Windows 8. Direct integration with OneDrive means that you can open and store files to and from the cloud—all from within whichever application you're using. You no longer need to log onto a separate cloud service in your browser to upload or download a file.

Office 365: Team Sites

Figure 4: The Team Sites feature lets you create a shared project and then add tasks, documents, a calendar and more

You can also stream your Office programs to another computer (Windows 7 or later), and a new entry on the File menu, called Share, lets you save the file to the cloud and invite others to simply view it, or you can allow them to edit and comment on it.

Not at your PC? Not a problem. You can log into your Office 365 account from any PC and use Office Online, which delivers cloud-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Best of all, the cloud versions of the applications have the same look, feel and features as their desktop counterparts. That's a big advantage over Google Apps and other online office suites, since it eliminates the learning curve for employees familiar with Microsoft Office.

Small Business Cloud Collaboration

Office Online isn't the only way that Office 365 SBP leverages the cloud for collaboration. With OneDrive for Business included in your subscription, you and your employees can store critical files to the online service for anywhere, anytime access. Even better, you can designate folders on your desktop PC to automatically synchronize with your OneDrive account, so critical files are always accessible.

OneDrive can also be used to share files with coworkers or clients. You can designate certain files as "shared" from within OneDrive (or do so with the aforementioned Share command in Office applications) so others can access them. Instead of sending a file around via email—and winding up with multiple versions—you can send an invitation via email to access the selected file. You decide whether invitees have read-only access or permission to edit and comment the file. And those invitees don't have to have Office installed; they can open the files in Office Online.

If you need to share more than files with more than one person at a time, you'll appreciate the value of Office 365 SBP's Team Sites feature. Ideal for group projects with a lot of moving parts, Team Sites are shared workspaces where various stakeholders—both inside and outside your organization—can store documents, post schedules, create task lists and more. You simply create a new project "site" and upload pertinent files for others to see and edit (again, you set the permissions), create a project timeline and calendar and enter a task list, then invite others to join the site.

Office 365 Website builder tool

Figure 5: The Website builder tool offers 41 themed templates, which you can further customize with color schemes, fonts and photos.

Office 365 SBP fills yet another piece of the collaboration puzzle: group meetings. Your subscription includes access to Lync Online, a unified communications platform that delivers IM and "presence" features (it lets you see who's online), free voice calls over your PC or mobile device to other Lync and Skype users, plus scheduled and ad-hoc audio and videoconferences.

You can schedule and launch Lync meetings directly from within Outlook, and the HD videoconferencing features include screen-sharing and virtual whiteboards. Note that invitees do not have to be Lync Online or Office 365 customers to participate.

Web Hosting and Website Creation

Website hosting forms another major component of the Office 365 SBP suite. If you don't already have one (or if you don't mind building a new one), you can create a public website quickly thanks to the 41 templates you'll find in the online builder tool. You can easily customize those templates by selecting a desired color scheme, adding your own photos, changing the typefaces and, of course, adding your own text.

The fairly basic default site includes navigation for Home, About Us, Directions, Contact Us and Blog. You can change those names in the navigation pane, and you can put any content you wish on those landing pages. You can even include a FaceBook "Like" button.

When you're done building, click on Publish and your site goes live—and your Office subscription includes the monthly hosting fee. Unfortunately, if you have an existing site you can't port it over to Office 365 SBP. And note that the default URL will be yourcompany-public.sharepoint.com. But if you already have a registered domain name (yourcompany.com, yourcompany.net and so on), the settings page in Office 365 SBP will walk you through the steps of associating that domain to your newly create site.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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