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First look at Microsoft Office 365

Office 365 beta brings your desktop to the cloud

By Mike Heck, Network World
April 18, 2011 03:03 AM ET

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In general, editing documents was consistent between the desktop and Web apps. Making changes in a browser sometimes temporarily changed the document layout; however the saved version maintained the formatting no matter which device was used for viewing.

One thoughtful addition let me allow external users to access my SharePoint Online sites without consuming a license.

In-house SharePoint setups have some extra-cost options, including Access Services for viewing databases in a browser. SharePoint Online includes this feature standard, which let me publish a Microsoft Access desktop file as an online database - with a few clicks.

Taking Team Sites mobile

Office 365 works with most smartphones that support Exchange ActiveSync - and you can access a mobile page of the Office 365 site through an ordinary Web browser. Plus, SharePoint Online supports mobile access to Team Site pages and list data.

Although I tested Office 365 with several phones that included a BlackBerry Bold, I wasn't surprised that the best experience was when using a Windows Phone 7 device. Since it has Office Mobile, I could view and make light edits to documents (such as correcting text) and synchronize them back to the Team Site. Further, I successfully recorded notes and snapped photos with the Windows Phone and saved the resulting OneNote file to the Team Site.

Keeping IT in control

The Office 365 Admin page is the gateway to administration functions of interest to IT support staff. I appreciated shortcuts to common tasks, including resetting passwords, adding new users, and assigning licenses. For large organizations, there's a must-have option for syncing with your on-premise Active Directory server.

In addition, your staff can view the health of the Office 365 service. As such, if users experience any problems, you'll know right away if the issue is with your network or Office 365. In the beta, the response time was consistently under two seconds and Microsoft's committed to 99.9% uptime for the final version of the service.

I also quickly performed other typical admin jobs, such as creating security groups. Office 365 doesn't match the mobile device management of dedicated products such as Sybase Afaria. However, I created a policy to enforce strong passwords and disable smartphone features, including use of the camera.

Overall, Office 365 for enterprises' Web-enabled tools let me access e-mail, 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.

Understandably, not every enterprise will feel comfortable entrusting productivity applications to the cloud for their entire organization. Still, Office 365's low-cost kiosk licensing may prove suitable for a subset of workers. Other options can prove equally economical - and free up internal resources - when you need to create secure extranets or deal with specific projects.

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