Office 365 off-limits to existing BPOS customers

Microsoft is piloting BPOS-to-Office 365 migrations before offering the service more broadly in September

Office 365 is now officially out, having been launched with great fanfare by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in New York City this week, but customers of the suite's previous version, called BPOS, will have to wait at least two months to join the party.

To make sure that the migration process to Office 365 runs smoothly for all BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) customers, Microsoft is taking a conservative approach and piloting the move with a hand-selected set of customers.

If all goes well, the company plans to begin "broad transitions" to Office 365 for BPOS customers at some point in September, the company said in a statement e-mailed to IDG News Service.

Even then, Microsoft will make an evaluation for each BPOS customer's transition timing based on their response to a readiness survey and other technical criteria, the company said.

"Our goal is to provide our existing customers the best experience when transitioning to Office 365. The one-time transition process is an important step to rolling out the service and we're focused on getting it right," the statement reads. "We have customers who span different needs and environments and through these early pilot efforts, we're able to improve our services and support to ensure that our current customers get the best possible experience they expect from Microsoft."

New customers and those who want to migrate their accounts and data from other non-Microsoft suites can sign up for Office 365 today.

The situation doesn't sit well with at least some BPOS customers who were eager to migrate to Office 365 right away and expressed their disappointment that they won't be able to in a discussion forum.

"Wow, so I guess the solution is to terminate service and sign back up, or maybe just terminate service and go elsewhere. Between the recent significant decrease in the support team's ability to, well, offer support and this, it's making it hard to stay happy with the service," a BPOS customer wrote in the discussion thread. "Can't argue with the business logic though -- they already get our money. It's way more important to push the service to new folks so they can collect their money as well. If only the marketing folks took the time to think about what happens when they alienate the customer base."

Office 365, a cloud-based collaboration and communication suite, includes online versions of the 2010 editions of Exchange, SharePoint, Lync and Office, offered through a variety of configuration options, all billed on a per-user-per-month basis. Industry observers view it as a much stronger competitor to Google Apps and other rivals than BPOS, which lacks the Office components and whose applications are based on the 2007 versions of their on-premise counterparts.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said that the intention to proceed with care when dealing with BPOS-to-Office 365 migrations isn't new and neither is the plan to have a pilot program following the product's general availability.

However, judging by their surprised reactions in discussion forums, the plan is news to some customers. Those tuning in via webcast to the launch event wouldn't have found out either. Ballmer didn't specifically address the issue and the overriding message at the event was for customers to embrace the product right away.

"Given all the hoopla Microsoft has put around Office 365, they realize this needs to go off not just well but perfectly or Microsoft and Ballmer specifically will have another dent in its cloud story," Rebecca Wettemann, a Nucleus Research analyst, said via e-mail.

"From a cloud reputation perspective they really can't afford any hiccups here so it makes sense to nurture net new customers rather than more complex migrations from BPOS," she added.

Some industry observers have pointed out that implementing Office 365, and specifically migrating to it from BPOS, doesn't seem like a straightforward or simple process, especially when compared with implementations of similar suites built primarily for the cloud only like Google Apps.

A major selling point for Office 365 is its ability to interact and sync up with Microsoft desktop and server applications, letting organizations run a hybrid environment for communication and collaboration software that, in theory, provides the best of the on-premise and cloud worlds -- Microsoft's "software plus services" concept. But for this hybrid model to work in Office 365, the on-premise software has to meet new upgrade requirements.

This is because BPOS works with some older versions of on-premise software products that Office 365 can't connect to, so a migration may need to be preceded by an upgrade sweep of desktop and server software that customers have on premise.

For example, Office 365 requires at least Office 2007 SP2 on the desktop. Otherwise, Office 365's Office Web Apps -- the online version of Office -- won't be able to connect with the desktop software. That means that Office 365 doesn't work with Outlook 2003 or earlier versions.

Microsoft has more details about Office 365 requirements for on-premise software and troubleshooting tips in a variety of informational websites and blog postings.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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