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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.

On the upside, changing the text is as simple as typing, and publishing is as simple as pressing a button after you've made all your changes. You can also easily preview everything before you publish.

So if you don't yet have a Web site and are looking to get one up and running with the minimum fuss, you may be satisfied, if a generic-looking site is all you need. But those who want something more sophisticated than a fill-in-the-blanks approach will not be pleased.

Microsoft would do well to give people the option to design and post their own sites using their own tools, and allow Office 365 to function as a traditional hosting service, not one that forces you to use predesigned templates.

Using Lync
Office 365 also includes Lync, Microsoft's service for setting up online meetings, detecting the presence of other employees in an organisation and communicating via instant messaging. It's a hosted, updated version of what was previously called Microsoft Communications Server. Especially useful is the ability to view "presence" information for authors of documents hosted on a team site, so that you can see when they are online and available for a chat or online meeting.

Overall organisation
Office 365's biggest problem is how easily it is to become lost while navigating and not be able to get back to a different part of the suite. Depending on where you are at the moment, there may or may not be sitewide navigation. For example, when you're building your Web site, there's no navigation away from the site-building tool; you have to use your browser's back button to get back to wherever you were before you started building the site.

Similarly, when you're building a team site using SharePoint toolsfor example, on the page setting permissionsyou can directly navigate only to certain portions of Office 365, and you have to use your back button more than you want. It's also easy to become lost and forget exactly where you came from, because there are often no clues about where you've been. You'll find similar problems at other places as well, such as when you're managing groups in the Exchange administrative tools section.

This gives Office 365 the feel of a group of separate apps and services that are only partially integrated; the suite is essentially a collection of existing services with only some common navigation. Keep in mind, however, that Office 365 is still in beta; the navigation and other issues may be fixed when the final version is released.

The bottom line
Office 365 is certainly more powerful than its chief competitor, Google Apps, but more difficult and confusing to use as well. And Office 365 would likely be overkill for some businesses, especially smaller ones. Still, for companies that need all of its power and are willing to put up with sometimes frustrating navigation and a potentially long learning curve, it can be a worthwhile productivity-booster and money-saver.


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