First Look: Office 365 Beta Shows Promise but Lacks Polish

Moreover, working from Microsoft's servers felt sluggish compared to a LAN, even over a fast Internet connection. Attempts to create, save, and update files were occasionally met with frustrating delays, making us long for a more traditional file server. Hopefully server performance will improve as the product leaves beta, but in general the Office applications don't feel as robust running on a Web-hosted workspace as on a local one.

Cohesion between its various components is where Office 365 Beta feels shakiest. The Office 365 home page carries a familiar Office 2010 look and feel, and Office Web Apps continue to emulate their desktop equivalents as closely as possible. However, SharePoint Online is an entirely different beast, resembling neither Office nor Windows. It's hard to see how these disparate components come together to form a single business solution.

Worse, it's difficult to navigate between modules of the suite. Once you move from the home page to the SharePoint Team Site, there are no obvious links to get you back to where you came from. In addition, the Back button is unreliable, so the process of exploring the suite becomes an unnecessarily tedious chore. Microsoft has a lot of work to do if it hopes to make the user experience of its hosted server software as readily accessible as Office 2010.

The integration between Office and SharePoint Online is impressive, but document collaboration still feels incomplete. SharePoint will alert you when others are editing a document (above), but won't show you their changes until you save (below).

Office 365: Exchange and Lync

Exchange Online will no doubt be one of the most attractive components of Office 365, particularly for small and midsized businesses, and it functions much as expected. Each user is given an inbox that integrates with Outlook 2010 and the Outlook Web Client, complete with an Internet email address that maps to a custom subdomain on the Office 365 servers.

In crafting the administration screens for Exchange Online, Microsoft has walked a fine line between simplicity and power. Admins can manage user accounts and organize them into distribution groups, create mail rules, generate audit reports, set up devices for use with ActiveSync, and draft a Bad Words policy to screen email, if desired. But your control of these features is somewhat limited, and many admins may find themselves wishing for more. For example, we're told the Exchange Online server incorporates "industry-leading anti-virus and anti-spam solutions," but if so, they're black boxes, with no controls to allow admins to tune or monitor them.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Some UI issues aside, the Office 365 Beta shows real promise for what matters to admins -- strong controls for a cloud service. See " Office 365: Expect huge improvements for admins ." ]

Another key selling point of Office 365 is Lync Online, a hosted version of Microsoft's revamped Communications Server. We experienced some provisioning problems at first, but once we were up and running, Lync allowed us to see presence and contact information for authors of collaborative documents, enhancing the workgroup experience considerably.

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