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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

While we are still waiting for the new version of SharePoint, the online version that appears in this version of Office 365 offers business-centric social networking that will enable users to follow people, teams, documents and sites, ensuring they know exactly what is happening. It can even decide itself what documents or sites users should be following and offers recommendations based on prior use.

Ratings and reputation scores enable to users recognize expert communities that they may be interested in following, while familiar social features such as hashtags, @mentions, and likes will satisfy even the most avid social networker. Newsfeed items can also be turned into Outlook tasks.

Part of the Office 365 roadmap also includes deeper SharePoint-Yammer integration, with a number of the Office 365 plans including a Yammer component as part of their packages.

Social feeds have also been upgraded with, for example, People Cards, accessible from all Office applications that provide a single view of everyone connected, no matter where they are. Office in this version includes built-in connectors that bring LinkedIn and Facebook into more of your workday.

Office 365 Top Ten

All this is only the tip of a very large iceberg, anyone interested in it should look at a trial version before drawing any conclusions. However, while Microsoft has been heavily promoting the entire suite, for the business community it is the improvements that appear in SharePoint, Exchange and Lync that make communication and collaboration easier. The improvements go something like this:

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Office 365 SharePoint 

Top 10 Improved SharePoint Features

 

  1. User Experience: The user experience has been simplified with functionality like drag-and-drop content into document libraries, live content previews, and list editing inline.
  2. Social: Allows users to track colleagues and what they are doing, as well as enabling sharing of current tasks and the ability to ask questions about what colleagues are doing.
  3. Network: New search abilities enables users to connect with people across the enterprise as well as information about their skillset, projects and past history.
  4. SkyDrive Doc Sync: With SkyDrive Pro, users will be able to sync content in SharePoint to their desktop.
  5. Content share: Easier sharing of content from one place within SharePoint.
  6. Site creation: Team sites can now be created in minutes with new wizards that help users set permissions, track meeting notes and bring all relevant content under the same roof.
  7. Project organization: Gives you views of projects and upcoming deliverables across SharePoint, Outlook and Microsoft Project.
  8. Customizable search: Easy-to-customize searches enables users to narrow searches and deliver more accurate results.
  9. Mobile SharePoint: Easier to manage content from smartphone or tablet.
  10. SharePoint marketplace: Easy access to SharePoint apps through the marketplace a click away.

Top 10 Improved Exchange Features

 

  1. Data safety: Identifies and secures data with the new Data Loss Prevention features, protecting sensitive data through deep content analysis.
  2. Easier eDiscovery: Analysis of data through the new Exchange eDiscovery Center that enables users to discover Exchange, SharePoint and Lync data stored in Exchange from a single interface.
  3. Data storage: In-place archiving and large mail boxes enable users to manage storage and compliance in a cost-effective way.
  4. Team management: Keeps track of old projects and associated communications, and enables users to access and see all that communication. Access to all team documents from Outlook.
  5. Unified user experience: Co-authoring, document storage and versioning are provided through SharePoint while messaging is managed by Exchange.
  6. Touch-enabled inbox: The new Outlook interface has also is redesigned to take account of touch screens.
  7. Cloud access: Moves to the cloud can be done overnight, or in stages to facilitate hybrid deployments.
  8. Simplify management: Management of Exchange through the Exchange Administration Center, a single, easy-to-use Web-based administration interface.
  9. Outlook Web-content: Users can customize Exchange by incorporating relevant, Web-based Office Apps into the desktop and browser-based Outlook.
  10. Contacts: Easy migration of contacts from other networks into Exchange.

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Office 365 Lync

Top 10 New and Improved Features of Lync

 

  1. Accessibility: New network adaptability conditions enables users to communicate securely using whatever network is most convenient.
  2. Unified client: Integrates video and voice calls Lync meetings, presence and instant messaging from a single easy-to-use client.
  3. Consistent experience: Provides a user-friendly consistent experience across all devices, and browsers, including Windows 7 and Windows 8, Windows Phone, iOS and Android smartphones.
  4. External communication: Lync Federation offers unified communications outside the enterprise through the internet with robust security to customers and clients using the most common messaging platforms.
  5. Take notes: Enables the sharing of OneNote digital meeting notes through Lync.
  6. Virtual conferences: See multiple video streams simultaneously and see the active speaker automatically.
  7. Adaptive videoconferencing: Uses open standards H.264 SVC to enable video compression, which adapts to bandwidth for a high-quality experience.
  8. Click to join: Easy access to meetings with a single click, or touch with the new touchscreen abilities.
  9. Browser-based access: Full Lynch Meeting experience for PC and Mac users through a browser from anywhere.
  10. Communicate: Quick Lync menu offers users the best option available for communication at a given point in time, and shows available communication modes.

We have to stress here that this is only to serve as a starting point and introduction to all the changes in the new suite.