Microsoft started the roll-out of the updated version of Office 365 for business users earlier this week. The upgrades are present in all elements of the suite and reflect a changing work environment that is now more mobile, social and collaborative than it was when the suite was originally launched 18 months ago.

Office 365 Upgrade

For a Microsoft launch it was relatively low-key, but then again, despite what Microsoft says this is more an upgrade than a launch, with many of the components already known through the release of the Home Premium edition at the end of last month.

Yesterday we looked at the three new SKUs for business users, that offer packages for businesses of less than 10 people to offerings for full-scale enterprises.

Just like the Home Premium Edition, it is clear that Microsoft is nudging businesses towards the online versions -- although if you look at the pricing, it’s more a shove than a nudge.

There will be a good deal written over the coming months about Office 365, especially when SharePoint 2013 is launched and people start making comparisons between the online edition and the upcoming release, but for the moment, let’s just take a quick look at some of the improvements that appear in this edition.

Office 365 Excel charts.jpg
Office 365 Excel charts

Social, Mobile, Collaborative Office 365

The improved version of Office 365 is not just about technology upgrades. It’s also about changes in the way we work.

Since the original release, enterprise social networking has improved inter- and intra-enterprise communications and collaboration, while the Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) trend is really gearing up with many companies now developing in-house strategies to deal with cross-device experiences. On top of this, all the "new" technologies have to be accessible to the different levels of technology skillsets in the enterprise.

Office 365 upgraded Excel.jpg

Office 365 Excel

The Microsoft answer to all these ongoing problems is this new updated version of Office 365.Like its predecessor, this version is easy to use with intuitive navigation to, and around, the different applications and functions, while at the same time providing enough muscle to complete any task, even the most demanding tasks.

It comes with full-featured, cloud-based versions of Office servers including SharePoint, Lync and Exchange -- all of which have been improved for business usage -- that aim to make users better communicators and collaborators inside and outside the enterprise.

Needless to say, applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and all the others that will be familiar to business users have also been upgraded, enabling all workers to create documents using pen, touch or keyboard, or flip through PowerPoint slides, check mail and create complex documents -- in effect, changing content workers from consumers to creators.

Office 365 and Devices

This time out, Office 365 is designed with mobile workers in mind and comes optimized for Windows 8 even if in Windows 7 it still looks pretty slick. In this version too it has also been optimized for a whole range of hardware, but Microsoft is making a big deal about its abilities around touch screens, tablets and light laptops as the world goes mobile.

While not directly related to this, the touchscreen and easy navigation looks like it will make it a perfect fit for the recently released Surface Pro tablet, which is still getting mixed reviews and could do with enhanced productivity components.

But that’s for another day. According to Microsoft, it is equally slick on Android devices as it is with iOS devices with both OneNote and Lync available natively for both platforms. With Office Web Apps, iPad users will also be able to view and edit documents through a browser.

Interface Improvements

Before the business release, Microsoft gave CMSWire a look at the new version. Even from an interface perspective, it looks brand, spanking new. The typefaces look cleaner, although there is no reason why they should, while frequently used items are accessible with a single click. Touch Mode adds more space while Quick Peeks let you see what’s happening in your calendar, where your contacts are and what they are doing from Outlook without leaving the inbox.

From a mobile perspective, all the functionality is accessible through touch, or with a stroke of a pen and with the sit-down desktop version you also have a wide range of content creation features.
Like predictive texting, Windows 8 also enables accurate touch typing with word and spelling suggestions with two different kinds of keyboards -- a full keyboard and one that can be used by thumbs.

Office 365 Outlook.jpg
Office 365 Outlook

Social Office 365

But it is the social aspects of Office 365 that many people will be looking at. Under this umbrella, you get a whole range of upgrades across the entire suite, but particularly in SharePoint.