A Look at Office 365

What it is, and isn’t, good for.

I believe that Software as a Service (SAAS) — when vendors provide fully functional software to end users over the Internet on a subscription basis — will be the dominant model for delivering applications to small businesses for a long time.

As Microsoft’s main SAAS offering, Office 365 is something that all small-business managers should understand, but I find that many are still confused about what Office 365 is and what it is and isn’t good for. I will try to answer those questions, tackling the major components of Office 365 one at a time.

Microsoft Office

When licensed via Office 365, Microsoft Office comes in two fundamentally different styles: Office Pro Plus and Office Online. Many people don’t realize that Office Pro Plus delivered via Office 365 is virtually undistinguishable from the traditional volume license and retail versions. Once installed, it works just like any other Windows application, with the added benefit that each user subscription includes licenses for five computers and five mobile devices.

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Office Online, on the other hand, is a version that runs in a web browser and lacks many features. It’s akin to Google Apps, meaning that it may work fine for basic word processing and spreadsheet tasks but is not yet ready to replace the installed version for power users or for those requiring integration with other software.

Exchange Online

Exchange Online is the email component of Office 365. With features like unlimited mailbox size, archiving, and encryption for a reasonable cost and good performance, it makes the reasons for hosting one’s own email few and far between. Unless your requirements are unusual, if you want to use Outlook and organize email using folders, host with Office 365; and if you want to use a web browser and organize via tags and search, host with Google. It’s that simple.

Skype for Business

Skype for Business is a component of Office 365 that includes web conferencing, instant messaging and voice calling. In my experience, it works quite well when the other party is already set up but is a little more cumbersome than other options when dealing with third parties who are not on Office 365.

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Microsoft recently released a feature called Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling, which allows Skype to completely replace a traditional phone system. It currently lacks key features like an auto-attendant, and its pricing is not disruptively low like Exchange Online’s, so I’m not yet too excited, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

SharePoint Online

SharePoint Online is an Office 365 platform for building web applications like corporate Intranets, discussion boards and document repositories. While it is quite easy to get basic functionality up and running quickly, I have found it to be relatively difficult to customize and somewhat buggy when you push its features beyond the basics. For those reasons, I don’t often recommend it — with one notable exception.

I find SharePoint to be a great solution for centrally storing Microsoft Office documents that involve a lot of collaboration. Because of the way that Office integrates with SharePoint, you don’t have to use the SharePoint website — you can just open and save the documents directly within the Office applications. And having the documents stored in SharePoint makes it easy to share links that open directly in Office, avoiding the usual email attachment or download processes that sharing often entails.

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OneDrive for Business

OneDrive for Business is Office 365’s solution for syncing files from the cloud to a personal computer. It’s a perfectly good place to store personal documents, as it comes with the same collaboration functionality as SharePoint documents. It also can be used to sync documents stored in SharePoint to personal computers for offline access or better performance. The main catch is that it doesn’t sync to a server or shared computer, so if you have more than a few people working in one location, there may be better options.

Steven Ellis has spent the last 16 years working at the intersection of business and technology for Bellwether Technology in New Orleans, where he serves as the company’s vice president.


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