After more than eight months of hype from Microsoft and analysis from PCWorld and our peers, Microsoft's cloud-based productivity suite, Office 365, formally went live Tuesday with Microsoft launch events from New York and around the world.
As usual, opinions are varied on whether Microsoft's second take at a cloud-based productivity suite meets the mark or is doomed to failure. Some have lambasted it as too expensive when compared to competitor Google Docs, while others have proclaimed it virtually cost-free.
Much attention has been paid to the core features of the cloud software suite, the hosted Exchange functionality that is essentially a refresh of what Microsoft had to offer with its horrifically named Business Productivity Online Suite, or BPOS. But there are some interesting new offerings within the Office 365 family, features and capabilities that deserve a discussion of their own.
One of the biggest new additions to the suite is the inclusion of Microsoft Lync in Office 365. Lync is Microsoft's rebranded and revamped Office Communications Server, its instant messaging, audio- and videoconferencing product.
Lync is an intriguing addition to the suite. In a time when more small businesses are virtual, on the road, or otherwise physically separated from each other, a slick and integrated real-time communications tools is a must.
There are many other tools used by small businesses for Web-based audio- and videoconferencing, with Skype chief amongst them. But with Skype's impending purchase by Microsoft likely leading to a Skype-Lync integration, Microsoft should be able to find ways to make the more robust Lync offering more interesting to customers.
Already it offers a seamless integration with the Exchange and Outlook messaging stack, giving Outlook users the ability to find out the availability of contacts and connect right from the email client that so many knowledge workers call their day-to-day home. It also offers IT the capability to get some control over what instant messaging is being used by employees, which is important as comparatively high-bandwidth video options gain prominence. And for staff that need to make connections outside of the enterprise, it offers an easy connection to Microsoft's consumer-grade IM product, Windows Live Messenger.
Lync is far from being WebEx, much less telepresence, when it comes to multimedia conferencing. But it does represent a "unified communications for the rest of us" offering for small businesses, offering a balance of consumer and enterprise features with appropriate IT oversight.
But it's the Office 365 monthly subscription model that really makes it shine as part of the larger suite. Unified communications is one of those deployments that many businesses would benefit from but never seem to get around to because of architectural complexity and expense. Moving it from capex to opex make it a much more achievable goal.
However Lync is not perfect for the enterprise on the go, especially not today. For businesses that have standardized on Windows Phone 7 (both of you), you're in good shape. For the rest of us, getting Lynced up on the go may be a bit more of a challenge. There's a BlackBerry version available as well. Microsoft has pledged support for a variety of other platforms, including iOS and Android, by the end of the year. Keep in mind, though, this is a Microsoft-offered timeline, and those have been known to change without notice. Windows Vista, anybody?
There are other differentiators for Office 365 as well, with SharePoint clearly chief among them. Microsoft's polarizing intranet portal software is the company's fastest product ever to $1 billion in revenues, and Microsoft seems to be constantly reminding its partners that it has more demand for SharePoint deployments than it does partners to do such deployments. But on the other hand, it's been criticized as too complex for small businesses, a very powerful tool that builds that power at the expense of simplicity and usability. However, with Office 365's backend tools, perhaps things will be a little easier for the smaller customer.