Microsoft customers who test out the Office 365 beta and try to launch it using Internet Explorer 9 on Windows 7 or Vista will receive a curious error message: your browser is not supported.
But this shouldn't deter anyone from tying the beta of Microsoft's new cloud computing service for small businesses and enterprises. The beta seems to work fine on any browser, including Google's Chrome, and on Windows XP, which Microsoft says is also not supported during the beta.
I noticed the error message after receiving an invitation to test out the beta of Office 365 - which encompasses Exchange and SharePoint Online, Lync Online, Office Web Apps and several other services.
I fired up the beta on Google Chrome, my default browser, and got this error message:
"Unsupported Web Browser
You are viewing Microsoft Office 365 Beta with an unsupported web browser. You will have a better experience with our website if you use one of these supported browsers:
• Windows Internet Explorer 8 or Internet Explorer 7 running on Windows 7 or Windows Vista
• Mozilla Firefox running on Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Mac OS X version 10.6, 10.5, or 10.4
• Safari running on Mac OS X version 10.6, 10.5, or 10.4"
To get the full experience, I figured I'd try it out on Internet Explorer 9, which I have running on my Windows 7 laptop (IE9 only runs on Windows 7 and Vista). But upon opening IE9 and navigating to the Office 365 beta site, I was surprised to see the exact same error message.
However, the beta seems to work perfectly well on IE9, Firefox and Google Chrome alike. I also tested it out briefly on my old Windows XP laptop, and found no problems despite Microsoft saying that only browsers running on Windows 7, Vista or Macs will be supported.
Even though IE9 is a polished and impressive Web browser, it is still labeled as a beta product. So, if Microsoft is trying to be cautious it makes sense for the company to push customers toward using a browser that's past the beta stage while testing out Office 365. Presumably, Office 365 beta testers who report problems on IE9 or Chrome will simply be told by Microsoft to switch to a supported browser.
A Microsoft spokesperson tells me via e-mail that "We will support IE9 once both it and Office 365 are out of beta. Chrome will also be supported. For now, the difference between IE8 (supported) experience and IE9 (unsupported) experience is a few additional security warnings when opening documents in the browser. No major missing functionality."
Also, Office 365 will be supported on Windows XP Service Pack 3 once the cloud computing service hits general availability, Microsoft says.
Our colleagues at InfoWorld have done a deep-dive review of the Office 365 beta, saying it "shows promise but lacks polish."
InfoWorld notes that users may notice limitations on browsers that don't support ActiveX, such as Chrome, Firefox and Safari.
"Unlike Office Web Apps, which are reasonably browser-agnostic, Office 365 delivers various components as ActiveX controls, and it's not always easy to predict when and where those controls will be needed," the review says. "If your browser doesn't support ActiveX, certain features will simply be grayed out, and it can be hard to tell whether that's due to a permissions problem, an as-yet-unimplemented feature, or because you need to try again using Internet Explorer."
InfoWorld also noticed sluggishness working of Microsoft's servers, as opposed to a LAN, with "frustrating delays" while creating, saving and updating files. "Cohesion between its various components is where Office 365 Beta feels shakiest," the review continues.
Microsoft's biggest advantage over Google Docs may be that Office 365's upper subscription tiers give users an Office Professional Plus 2010 license, in addition to the cloud-based services, the InfoWorld review says.
You can sign up for the Office 365 beta now, but there's no guarantee you'll get to test it out.
Those who sign up today will receive an e-mail stating "Due to the high level of interest, we cannot accommodate every request at this time. In the coming weeks, we will let you know as space becomes available."
Office 365 is expected to become generally available during the first half of 2011.
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
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