Decoded: Microsoft's puzzling Office 365 rollout

As promised, Microsoft has delivered the final pieces of its new Office lineup, rolling out several new global editions for businesses today.

The company now offers a whopping ten different Office 365 subscription options, and with the Wednesday launch of Office 365 Small Business Premium, Office 365 Midsize Business, and Office 365 ProPlus, organizations have multiple alternatives for obtaining Office 2013 desktop apps, for PCs and Macs. The three latest offerings also bundle business-specific extras, including website support, unified communications, collaboration, and security.

New subscriptions, myriad options

Microsoft has succeeded in further muddying the waters for would-be customers with these last-minute additions to its Office 365 business packages. And to figure out where the Office 365 subscription options stand in the greater Microsoft ecosystem, we need to compare them with the Office 2013 desktop productivity applications. 

As has been widely reported, the Office 2013 products follow a traditional software sales model: You pay a one-time fee, and receive licenses for one-time-only, single-computer installations. This structure makes some of the Office 365 subscription pricing more appealing, as you get not only multiple desktop installations and extra apps and features, but also full Office functionality on any Windows 7 or 8 PCs you might use in the wild via the new Office on Demand feature.

Nonetheless, the number of different subscription plans is daunting. Microsoft continues to offer the previously available Office 365 Small Business plan, which provides access to Web apps but doesn't grant access to desktop-class Office apps. But now the existing offerings are joined by three new subscription plans that deliver full-blown Office 2013 applications as well.

The new Office 365 Small Business Premium and Office 365 MidSize Business packages each bundle up to five desktop installations of Office 2013, along with support for email, public and internal websites, and collaboration and unified communication services. The suites are designed to be administered without an IT pro. Office 365 Small Business Premium is built for businesses with up to ten workers and costs $12.50 per user per month (or $150 per year). Office 365 MidSize Business, meanwhile, targets firms with up to 300 users, and costs $15 per month or $180 per user per year.  Among other things, you can configure these services to use an existing domain for email and a website, much the way Google Apps works.

The administrative dashboard is easy enough for nontechies.

A third new offering, Office 365 ProPlus, deploys Office 2013 via the cloud, and without the business-specific Web services. Microsoft says this arrangement allows it to run alongside older versions of Office, as opposed to the conventional desktop installations, which typically overwrite older versions. Microsoft also says that streaming Office 2013 apps allows organizations to deploy custom settings across all of a user’s devices.

But, wait, the dizzying options don't end there.

In addition, Microsoft is keeping all of the old Office 365 offerings, which include four midsize and enterprise versions of the suite. Existing Small Business or Small Business Premium customers can upgrade to the MidSize plan at some point later this year.

It’s worth noting that individuals and very small organizations that don’t care about the collaboration features, email, and website support offered in the business services may find the consumer-focused Office 365 Home Premium sufficient (but don't tell Microsoft we sent you). It’s the least-expensive way to get Office 2013: A $100-a-year subscription pays for five installations on whatever mix of PCs and Macs you may have, and includes all Office 2013 Professional applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, and Access).

SkyDrive on Office 365 business accounts includes separate tabs for browsing, file management, and libraries. The latter two tabs have their own ribbon.

As for the desktop, nonsubscription editions of Office, Microsoft last month began selling three stand-alone versions: Office 2013 Home & Student ($140), which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote; Office 2013 Home & Business ($220), which adds Outlook; and Office 2013 Professional ($400), which adds Publisher and Microsoft’s Access database application.

Not only can you not install Office 2013 on more than one PC or Mac, but you can never move it to another PC or Mac even if you uninstall it from a computer you’re no longer using. The license is tied to the computer—a new restriction.

You can get a few bucks off the retail prices by purchasing a product key card to use with installation software that you’ve either downloaded or obtained on media, but for staffers who may upgrade computers or use multiple systems (say, a desktop and a laptop, or a home machine and a business machine), the costs can mount quickly.

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