Microsoft Office 365 Beta: Useful and Frustrating

Web sites -- the weak link

Office 365 includes tools for building Web sites, and this is very clearly the weak link in the chain.

If you use Office 365 for e-mail, SharePoint and other services, you also have to use Office 365's built-in tools for building and managing your Web site. Why? Because when you port your domain over to Office 365, Microsoft hosts both your Web site and your e-mail. Office 365 doesn't include a feature that simply lets you post your own HTML and Web-based applications to a Web server.

So if you've built a Web site with other tools, have a Web development team, or have hired an outside firm to build a site for you, you're out of luck -- you can't build your own site and then have it hosted on Office 365. Microsoft says that you may eventually be able to use a work-around in which only your mail is hosted on Office 365 and your Web site can remain elsewhere, but there are no details yet.

The site-building tools are simplistic and template-driven, so your site will end up looking generic, with only images and text to distinguish it. There are the usual "About Us," "Contact Us," "Site Map" and "Member Login" navigation links, several preset "zones" where you can place content and so on. You can choose from a variety of different themes that will populate the site with graphics, and there are plenty of these, ranging from accounting to lawn and garden -- but since this is a beta, many of the themes are missing. You can also choose from a number of basic layouts such as one-column, two-column, three-column and so on. And you can define your own custom style sheets and change the background.

On the upside, changing the text is as simple as typing, and publishing is as simple as pressing a button after you've made all your changes. You can also easily preview everything before you publish.

So if you don't yet have a Web site and are looking to get one up and running with the minimum fuss, you may be satisfied, if a generic-looking site is all you need. But those who want something more sophisticated than a fill-in-the-blanks approach will not be pleased.

Microsoft would do well to give people the option to design and post their own sites using their own tools, and allow Office 365 to function as a traditional hosting service, not one that forces you to use predesigned templates.

Using Lync

Office 365 also includes Lync, Microsoft's service for setting up online meetings, detecting the presence of other employees in an organization and communicating via instant messaging. It's a hosted, updated version of what was previously called Microsoft Communications Server. Especially useful is the ability to view "presence" information for authors of documents hosted on a team site, so that you can see when they are online and available for a chat or online meeting.

Overall organization

Office 365's biggest problem is how easily it is to become lost while navigating and not be able to get back to a different part of the suite. Depending on where you are at the moment, there may or may not be sitewide navigation. For example, when you're building your Web site, there's no navigation away from the site-building tool; you have to use your browser's back button to get back to wherever you were before you started building the site.

Similarly, when you're building a team site using SharePoint tools -- for example, on the page setting permissions -- you can directly navigate only to certain portions of Office 365, and you have to use your back button more than you want. It's also easy to become lost and forget exactly where you came from, because there are often no clues about where you've been. You'll find similar problems at other places as well, such as when you're managing groups in the Exchange administrative tools section.

This gives Office 365 the feel of a group of separate apps and services that are only partially integrated; the suite is essentially a collection of existing services with only some common navigation. Keep in mind, however, that Office 365 is still in beta; the navigation and other issues may be fixed when the final version is released.

The bottom line

Office 365 is certainly more powerful than its chief competitor, Google Apps, but more difficult and confusing to use as well. And Office 365 would likely be overkill for some businesses, especially smaller ones. Still, for companies that need all of its power and are willing to put up with sometimes frustrating navigation and a potentially long learning curve, it can be a worthwhile productivity-booster and money-saver.

Companies that want an all-in-one suite of the hosted versions of Microsoft's communications and collaboration servers should take a look at Office 365. It's a compelling offering, particularly for small and midsize companies.

Organizations will also have to balance whether the suite's Web-site-building capabilities are up to their standards. Microsoft would do well to offer a version of Office 365 that includes the ability to host Web sites and not force companies to use rudimentary Web-building tools. And it should turn Office 365 into a true, integrated offering, rather than a set of tools that co-exist uneasily. If it did all that, Office 365 would be quite useful.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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