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Microsoft Office 365 beta: Potentially useful, occasionally frustrating

Preston Gralla | Jan. 25, 2011
The suite of cloud-based business applications offers definite advantagesif the rough edges can be smoothed out.

Office Web Apps
Microsoft has forged links between Microsoft Office and team sites in Office 365. When you click on a document in a team site, you can open and edit it in Office, and then save it back to the team site. In addition, if you use Microsoft Office Professional Plus, which includes Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010, you can get access to team sites and their document libraries when you're offline by syncing to them when you're online, using them offline, and then resyncing when you're back online again. And you can also publish Access databases to SharePoint Online and allow people to get access to those databases from a Web browser.

According to Microsoft, you should be able to use Office Web Apps for reading, editing and creating documents on team sites, and you should be able to allow several people to work collaboratively on the same document simultaneously. I was unable to get that to work on my test machines. However, this may have been an anomaly on my part.

Office 365's flawed integration is especially evident in SharePoint. Once you enter SharePoint, you frequently lose navigation to the rest of Office 365you appear to be in SharePoint alone. Even navigating to different parts of SharePoint itself is confusing, because you'll often have to use your browser's back button rather than SharePoint-specific navigation.

Web sitesthe weak link
Office 365 includes tools for building Web sites, and this is very clearly the weak link in the chain.

If you use Office 365 for e-mail, SharePoint and other services, you also have to use Office 365's built-in tools for building and managing your Web site. Why? Because when you port your domain over to Office 365, Microsoft hosts both your Web site and your e-mail. Office 365 doesn't include a feature that simply lets you post your own HTML and Web-based applications to a Web server.

So if you've built a Web site with other tools, have a Web development team, or have hired an outside firm to build a site for you, you're out of luckyou can't build your own site and then have it hosted on Office 365. Microsoft says that you may eventually be able to use a work-around in which only your mail is hosted on Office 365 and your Web site can remain elsewhere, but there are no details yet.

The site-building tools are simplistic and template-driven, so your site will end up looking generic, with only images and text to distinguish it. There are the usual "About Us," "Contact Us," "Site Map" and "Member Login" navigation links, several preset "zones" where you can place content and so on. You can choose from a variety of different themes that will populate the site with graphics, and there are plenty of these, ranging from accounting to lawn and gardenbut since this is a beta, many of the themes are missing. You can also choose from a number of basic layouts such as one-column, two-column, three-column and so on. And you can define your own custom style sheets and change the background.


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