Microsoft's Office 365 not ready to leave beta, analyst says

Support forums illustrate numerous customer complaints about the beta of Microsoft's Office 365 cloud service

Office 365 beta suffering some nagging issues a few weeks before the service is likely to go live.

Microsoft's Office 365 cloud service is likely on the verge of exiting beta and entering general availability. CEO Steve Ballmer revealed that the service will launch this month and will be giving a speech about the service's future on June 28.

But is Office 365 really ready to ditch the "beta" tag? One analyst who has been testing Office 365 for a few months says no -- and a quick look at Microsoft help forums shows that numerous beta testers are experiencing problems.

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"I'm a big fan of Office 365. I think it's going to do well," says analyst Paul Burns of Neovise, who spent 20 years as a software engineer and senior product manager at HP, a strong Microsoft partner, before becoming an industry analyst. "But if they are moving out of beta at the end of June, then yes, I'm surprised."

Burns signed up for the Office 365 beta for himself and five part-time employees, and plans to continue using the service at the small-business rate of $6 per person per month once it becomes generally available. Burns is using Exchange for email as well as SharePoint, Lync, Office Web Apps and the regular version of Microsoft Office.

One missing capability, in Burns' opinion, is the ability to import contacts from, say, an Outlook client into a shared global address list that can be accessed by all employees through an Exchange server.

Currently, Microsoft requires Office 365 customers to either manually enter each email address one by one, or use Windows PowerShell.

Burns isn't the only one complaining about this, as a help forum thread shows.

A Microsoft support specialist told users on May 12, "If you'd like to import a list of contacts into your Global Address List, you'll need an Enterprise subscription. In Enterprise, you can use Remote PowerShell."

A week later, the Microsoft moderator followed up and said, "Small Business subscribers can now use Remote PowerShell."

But PowerShell requires users to work in a command-line interface, and "not everyone has the expertise to do that," Burns said. It's also time-consuming.

Because of the global address list snafu, and another issue that made it difficult to create properly functioning email aliases, Burns says, "I went to download PowerShell, but very quickly I realized this is going to be time-consuming -- and if I write the script, how do I test it? How do I know it's right? Now I'm afraid to run the script on my data. What if I biff it and delete all my stuff instead?"

One Office 365 beta user complained in the global address list help forum, "This is another example of how such a basic requirement from any business cannot be executed unless you have the Enterprise package. Why the heck should you need to have the Enterprise package simply to be able to import contacts into the GAL?"

In response to a query from Network World, Microsoft said it provides tools to small businesses to migrate users and mailboxes from other services.

"Office 365 for small businesses is designed specifically for smaller businesses and professionals who are looking for cloud-based productivity tools without the IT hassles," Microsoft said in an email statement.

At the same time, Microsoft did not deny that it requires PowerShell to import addresses into the Global Address List. PowerShell is also required to create shared mailboxes for email aliases -- which, for example, would let any employee respond from a generic address, such as "sales@company.com."

We received no word from Microsoft on whether this will change once Office 365 exits beta.

Office 365 is getting some positive reviews. Network World reviewed the enterprise version of Office 365, with tester Mike Heck reporting, "Overall, Office 365 for enterprises' Web-enabled tools let me access email, important documents, and efficiently collaborate with those inside -- and outside -- my test organization's boundaries. This cloud service works handily with Microsoft's desktop office application that workers may already use. Additionally, Office 365 gives enterprise IT departments control over policies and configuration -- while delegating server maintenance and software upkeep to Microsoft."

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But any online service is bound to have problems, and the Office 365 help forums illustrate which issues are frustrating users. One user complains that while Office 365 lets you connect to up to five POP or IMAP email accounts, it only checks the extra accounts once an hour by default. Checking them manually requires a couple of steps.

"In this beta exchange environment you have to wait an hour before connected mail accounts will be checked. This is unacceptable," the user wrote this week. "Will this change in the final version? If not, I will move on. For me, as a freelancer it is not [a] workable situation."

Another user complained about calendar tasks not syncing properly with a Windows mobile phone, and others had trouble creating SharePoint sites.

Burns also complained about non-delivery of emails, coupled with a status dashboard that is less than informative. In a case where multiple people told him they received bounce-back emails while trying to contact him, the Office 365 dashboard insisted there were no problems at all.

"Office 365 can have problems on its side, and I'd like to be informed via an administration tool when that happens," Burns says.

Another nagging issue was configuring Office 365 to work with a website hosted by a non-Microsoft provider. Microsoft offers documentation on how to do this, but Burns says the process was full of snags and took many hours.

Burns temporarily had problems inviting people to Lync meetings via email, until that issue was fixed. He's also struggled with importing Word documents into Office Web Apps while keeping the right format, even though Microsoft has loudly touted its ability to import documents and criticized Google Docs for its failure to do so.

Overall, though, Burns is impressed by Microsoft's new cloud service. "I'm totally impressed with that price, and I'm really impressed that they're letting people even just buy one seat per company," he says.

But will the transition from beta to general availability go smoothly? We'll find out soon.

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

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