Finally, Office 365 has arrived in beta. Office 365 is Microsoft’s cloud-based online business application subscription service that comes in two packages: One for enterprises with 25 employees but can go as far as 50 users, the other for enterprise users that can be scaled to as many seats as necessary.

While there are a number of differences between the two, they are fundamentally the same, offering Office Web Apps, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online, plus an external Web site to subscribers. For enterprises there is the additional option of upgrading to the beta of Office Professional Plus, which, Microsoft says, offers all the office software you could possibly want and more.

The difference here is that, instead of having to pay out $499 for the Professional Plus license, Microsoft charges another $12 per user/month for it on a subscription basis. For that you get Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook with Business Contact Manager, OneNote, Publisher, Access, InfoPath, SharePoint Workspace and Lync.

Office Professional Plus

Over the coming weeks, we will be taking a deeper look at Office 365, including SharePoint Online and Lync. For now, though, we are going to take a look at Office as it appears in the enterprise version of Office365: Office Professional Plus Beta.

Just to be clear on this -- while Office Web Apps is part of the standard Office 365, to get all the features of Word, Excel and the rest of the Microsoft Office software portfolio, plus the means to collaborate on that content in real time, you have to get Professional. But we’re jumping the gun here. Let’s look at it top-down.

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After downloading Professional Plus beta

What Is Professional Plus?

Professional is essentially the most recent version of Microsoft Office, connected and delivered through the cloud.

With it, users can gain access to documents, email and calendars from just about any device available in the enterprise, both mobile and desk-bound. It also includes Office Web Apps -- online companions to Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint and Microsoft OneNote -- which lets users review and make edits to documents from a browser.

What Do You Get?

As you might expect, you get the latest versions of Office 2010 applications in the cloud that come with the same interface as their desktop cousins. Applications include: Access 2010, Excel 2010, InfoPath 2010, OneNote 2010, Outlook 2010, PowerPoint 2010, Publisher 2010, Word 2010, Lync 2010 and SharePoint Workspace 2010.

 

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MS Access in Professional Plus

Capabilities

As the purpose of this is a dual one -- provision of office applications and collaboration -- the idea here is to enable users to work on any kind of office document, on any kind of device, and allow them collaborate no matter where the users are located.

Users can gain access to their applications anywhere, edit and review those documents and have those edits appear as they were intended in Explorer, Safari and Firefox browsers. More specifically it offers:

  • Office Web Apps: Designed to work with the full versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote; with it, users can do light editing from virtually any device
  • Microsoft Office Mobile 2010: Enables uses to share, edit and comment on documents through familiar Office environments adapted to mobile devices
  • Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010: Work with SharePoint documents offline with Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010 and then update them once online again

Collaboration

With collaboration as one of the cornerstones of Office 365, it is not a surprise that there are new and enhanced features here that streamline communication, manage email and share information quicker.

Collaboration features include:

  • Co-authoring: Using Office Professional Plus, it enables users to work on documents in real time with multiple users able to contribute and edit Excel spreadsheets, and build reports on documents in Word as well as fill in OneNote notebooks, from different locations and at the same time. To do this, users will have to be subscribed to SharePoint Foundation 2010 or SharePoint Online.
  • Broadcast Slide Show: PowerPoint presentations can be shared live with remote audiences through a web browser. The Broadcast Slide Show feature enables users to give online presentations as they are broadcast, while videos of their presentations can be created using a click-through feature.
  • Outlook Social Connector: This enables users to update their social networks without having to leave Outlook, which also offers information about mutual friends or other social information.
  • Presence Information: With the integration of many of the Office applications with Lync, which also comes with Office 365, users can monitor the presence of other people in their network and can initiate conversations from within some Office applications.

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MS Word in Office Professional Plus

In terms of information creation and development, there are also a number of tools that should be of interest. These include:

  • Photo and video editing: Embed, edit and format audio and video files from within PowerPoint 2010 to create presentations of other rich media elements
  • Email management: Using Outlook 2010, they can gain access to email as well as manage large amounts of email using the view feature; another new feature, Quick Steps, enables multi-command tasks such as moving email messages to separate folders and replying to it with a click
  • Capture text, images, audio, and video: Using OneNote, teams can organize and search content from one place; this version comes with improvements to the navigation bar as well as text tagging and on-the-fly grouping of similar terms
  • Visualization and analysis tools: Excel 2010 comes with new visualization tools that display visual summaries of analyses values with a new chart tool called Sparklines, enabling users to filter data in a Pivot table

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MS_OneNote in Office Professional Beta

Security

We have noted before that one of the big holdbacks for companies moving to the cloud has been security concerns for data that is contained in the cloud. Obviously Microsoft has taken this into account with Office 365, as it comes with a number of security features that should reassure most, including:

  • Trusted Documents: Documents that are taken from the Internet will be opened in Protected View while reducing the number of steps for files that come from trusted sources. There is also an Accessibility Checker for content that may be difficult to access for people with limited vision.
  • Security: Office Professional Plus comes with out-of-the-box support for Cryptographic Agility by integrating with the Cryptographic Next Generation (CNG) interfaces for Windows. Using it, administrators can use any cryptographic algorithm for encrypting and signing documents. It also enables IT to enforce password and security consistency.
  • Compliance: Compliance is ensured by providing features such as Retention Policy and the Accessibility Checker. Retention Policy is an archiving tool that works with users’ workflows and can perform item-level retention, user-created file application, and exception handling.

Subscribers obviously also get all the features that are common to all Microsoft business-class online services including:

  • Secure access: Intrusion monitoring -- Microsoft continuously monitors the Microsoft Online Services systems for any unusual or suspicious activity
  • Security audits: Microsoft regularly assesses the Microsoft Online Services infrastructure to ensure that the latest antivirus signatures and required security updates are installed
  • Business continuity: Data centers act as backups for each other; if one fails, the affected customers are transferred to another data center with limited interruption of service

At the time of going to beta, Microsoft said its Office 365 services aim to have 99.9% scheduled uptime, with backup servers coming into play in the event of a problem with the server your company is using.

Data centers are located worldwide to maximize the reach of Office 365, with data provisioning in the most appropriate center for the company address.

Users are provided with 25 GB of storage and security features (such as litigation hold on email deletion) can be controlled by enabling or disabling them via check boxes. In short: it’s largely enterprise-capable administration.

Future Productivity

As the Office 365 beta, and Office Professional Plus beta have just been released, and with the possibility that the final version, when it is released later, will have some small differences, it is too early to offer any kind of serious criticism of it.

That said, it was easy to download, easy to use and did seem to live up to the promise of a productivity suite that will be accessible to even novice users.

The collaboration features that are available with Professional Plus will probably be new to quite a lot of people, but anyone who has used the online Web Apps released last June to accompany the Office 2010 release will get the idea.

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MS_Publisher in Office Professional Plus Beta

That said, for the full Office suite and the full real-time collaboration capabilities, you will have to go the Professional Plus route.

Keeping in mind that the idea behind this is that users will be able to use it as a replacement for email, unified communications and file sharing, the litmus test will be whether the price is right.

There are so many different variations for pricing that it would be impossible to list it all here. However, starting with the basic package with Web Apps – Office Professional Plus is more expensive again: Office 365 for small businesses with fewer than 25 employees and delivering Office Web Apps, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Lync Online plus an external Web site to subscribers, will cost US$ 6/user/month.

You can pick and choose your features -- you don’t have to take everything, although without Exchange, SharePoint and Lync, some of the features for Office won’t work.

All in all, even taking Professional Plus on its own, for companies that are looking to get really productive in the office, this seems to be the real deal. While it will probably take a lot more use, and use in a daily, professional context, to tease out the strengths and weaknesses, from where we’re sitting now, it looks pretty good.