Office 365: Office in the Cloud still promising?

Katherine murray By Katherine Murray

In a hardworking, digitized world, it’s hard to imagine tools more sought after than those that show up reliably on any portable device and work well — or at least as well as advertised.

Whether Microsoft’s Cloud-based Office 365 is that tool — in fact or even in potential — is still an open question.

We look to Cloud computing to simplify our work lives — that’s what we need it to do. So when I first heard about Microsoft Office 365, I was excited by the possibility of accessing my files, getting e-mail, scheduling appointments, and having online meetings from anywhere I had Web access (including via my smartphone). As the owner of a small business, I relished the idea of using my favorite Office programs wherever an Internet connection was available. (Plus, the “greenness” of the idea attracted me.) Add in a SharePoint team site with document libraries and a free public website, and Office 365 seemed to be a pretty solid solution for a small-business owner working with folks scattered all over the globe.

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Working with the Professional and Small Business version of Office 365, I was initially attracted to its Web services — glitches and bugs notwithstanding. It seemed well suited to giving users a way to easily organize and share files in one online space and allowing them to work with the Office apps they preferred. At the same time, it relieved them of the task of maintaining the system. Users could happily focus just on their work.

I also liked that Office 365 maintains user files in a secure environment (built on the concept of redundancy, so data is well protected yet easily accessed). Whatever you were working on, you could get to it from almost anywhere, using any Web-enabled device at hand.

Trying to read fine print for Cloud services

This arrangement sounds good, but I soon discovered that current reality isn’t quite in sync with the vision. Although Office 365 is continuing to evolve (as any good Cloud offering should), I find myself waiting — at the cost of U.S. $6.00 a month — for the true benefits of Office 365 to reveal themselves.

The first obstacle to a happy Office 365 experience is Microsoft’s complex payment plans. Different services are available for different plans at different monthly rates. Microsoft says this variability is a “simplicity versus flexibility” trade-off.

Thankfully, there’s only one contract for small-business users, though it unfortunately doesn’t include a subscription to the desktop version of Office Professional Plus 2010 — which you will likely need if you want to do any serious word- or number-crunching online.

When I looked into adding the Office application suite to my Office 365 subscription, I almost immediately got lost in the product descriptions listed on Microsoft’s website. Some of my unanswered questions included: What are the Office Web Apps really equipped to handle? Why do I need Office 365 when I can use the Office Web Apps for free as part of Office Professional 2010? Does the version of Office on my desktop give me direct access to Office 365, or does it just plug me into SkyDrive? If I choose to subscribe to Office Professional Plus as part of Office 365, is that the same thing as downloading the software from the Cloud to my PC? In other words, is this the same suite of Office apps, available from different points?

Consulting the Office 365 online forums, I discovered that good answers were fairly rare and many comments were flavored either by frustration or marketing-speak. So with that, I set off to find the answers myself — which I’ll now share with you.

How small an Office can you get away with?

I started by investigating the capacities of Office Web Apps. Could I use them exclusively to get my work done? Would I still have all the Office tools I need, using a variety of devices? Would I be able to post and share files in my SharePoint team site? Not installing Office 2010 on my desktop could save considerable software costs and headaches.

Because Word is the application I use most frequently, I took a close look at Word Web App — and quickly found its capabilities to be seriously limited. And I mean seriously, as in “write a few words, format them a little, and add a picture” limited. (See Figure 1.) Word Web App seems to be built more for reviewing documents than for any serious editing or formatting.

Microsoft does make clear that Office Web Apps should be seen as Office “light.” So I didn’t truly expect the service to provide all the features available in my full-blown version of Office. But I was surprised Web Apps were that limited. (When I first evaluated Office 365, I thought Office Web Apps were limited partly because they were still in beta. Apparently the limitations were intended.)

Web word's limited capabilities
Figure 1: Word Web App gives you a bare-bones set of word-processing features.

Word Web App might be sufficient if your small business just needs to get the text onto the page — nothing fancy, such as columns, headers and footers (or even page numbers), or mail merges (heaven forbid).

So for my application, it was obvious that Word Web App wasn’t going to cut it. That meant no cost savings by eliminating Office from my desktop computer.

So you need the full Office suite, after all

If you have Office Professional 2010 installed on your desktop, you can use all its available features and then use the Save & Send command in the File menu to post files on your Office 365 team site. Click Save to SharePoint, Browse for a Location, and Save As; a dialog box then displays the Office 365 team site as one of your Workspaces choices. (See Figure 2.) To save the document to the site, simply choose the shared folder and click Save.

Saving docs for a team
Figure 2: You can easily save a file created in your desktop version of Office to your team site in the Cloud.

If you don’t have Office on your desktop — and you don’t want to go through the hassle of purchasing, deploying, and supporting it — you can subscribe to Office Professional Plus as part of Office 365. This $15-per-user-per-month license enables each person to install Office on up to five devices. That’s a great feature if you use your desktop, laptop, netbook, tablet, and phone interchangeably.

Microsoft says that the desktop version of Office Professional Plus (available only through volume licensing) and the Office 365 version are not the same product. That’s puzzling. Perhaps the distinction is not so much in bits, but source — you need to have an active Office 365 subscription to access its version of Office Professional Plus. Whatever the differences, any version of Office Professional I pay for must have all the features I need for my business.

How do you define ‘collaborating in real time?’

As mentioned above, collaborating with teammates in real time was one of the features that made Office 356 an attractive prospect. As an Office 365 Professional and Small Business subscriber, I can share a file and work — virtually — shoulder-to-shoulder with one or more teammates.

I can also collaborate with people outside my team by giving them access to my Office 365 account via my SharePoint team site. The process is, however, clunky — for example, if an outside user has Windows Live or Hotmail accounts, they get bumped to a different site for signin. But if you don’t mind clicking through a few hurdles, collaborating this way is doable.

Overall, Office 365 does a nice job of orchestrating collaboration, ensuring that all changes made in a file get reflected in the final version. If you have multiple authors working on the same piece, that’s one less thing for you to worry about.

Office 365 needs real-world customer support

Mature services come equipped with good customer support. Businesses provide real customer support by communicating clearly, consistently, and well with their customers — through their websites, forums, and technical support. If you’re providing services — especially for small businesses — you make it clear that you take customer questions and concerns seriously. Your effort to communicate well builds trust with your customers, and they feel better about you as a company (and might even like your products more).

This is a place where Office 365 needs triage. As the premier Cloud offering from Microsoft, Office 365 support should do a stellar job of “being there” for people who are trying to put together what they need to use the service successfully. You need read only a few forum posts to gather that many Office 365 users feel frustrated and lost trying to get the system working to their satisfaction. (It’s what they’re paying for.) Users are writing in with questions about business-critical concerns, and those questions might go unanswered for long periods of time. Many of Microsoft’s responses sound more like marketing messages than technical answers.

Posters aren’t asking trivial questions. Office 365 isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, there are connectivity issues (such as “why can’t I see the Office Web Apps on my iPad?”), and users can’t see how to migrate data from Microsoft Business Productivity Online Services or Office Live. (Both services are being phased out, and users are now being asked to subscribe to Office 365.) These are just a few of the user concerns found on Office 365’s forums

Some of the limitations I find in Office 365 service right now are understandable, given that it’s a new product expanding to serve a huge — and rapidly evolving — Cloud space. Perhaps Microsoft will hit its Office 365 stride as enterprise and education areas continue to adopt the service. (Microsoft says it has expanded greatly in these markets.) I hope that those of us using the Professional and Small Business plan will see our services mature and stabilize as well.

A possibly bright future, despite growing pains

With a bit of maturity, Office 365 should be a good solution for low-cost, secure, shared team space — a place where you can touch base with your colleagues, track schedules, communicate with customers, and to some degree collaborate in the Cloud.

Office 2010 and future versions are critical components of the Office 365 system. Which version you pick — desktop, subscription, or Web App — will depend on the features you need. But it’s good to have choices.

That said, none of the good in Office 365 is going to matter much if Microsoft doesn’t do a better job of supporting its struggling Office 365 subscribers. You just can’t move people — or companies, or schools — to a subscription model and then disappear when they need your help. The entire premise of Cloud services is relieving customers of responsibility for maintenance and tech support. That’s part of the promise. How Microsoft will make good on that promise remains to be seen.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praise, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

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Katherine Murray

About Katherine Murray

Katherine Murray is the author of My Windows 8.1 (Que, 2013), Microsoft Office 2013 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2013), My Evernote (Que, 2012), and other non-fiction books on business, parenting, and Earth-care topics. She also coauthored, with Woody Leonhard, Green Home Computing for Dummies (Wiley 2009), and she writes and tweets (@kmurray230) about green-tech, wellness, and other social issues.