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BW Businessworld

Cloud Clout

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When you start talking about Microsoft, it is often tempting to compare the IT giant with its closest rivals. In the 1990s, most comparisons were with its old foe Apple. There were countless arguments then about the benefits and drawbacks of Windows versus the Mac OS. Then, for a brief while, comparisons were between Linux and Windows, a line of argument that has not died down completely or probably never will. Now, in the cloud age, Microsoft products are compared with that of Google. Specifically, its Office products are weighed against Google Apps for Business, although the two sets of productivity software are very different in some ways. Now, there is a reason to continue these comparisons.

A few days ago, Microsoft released the beta version of Office 365, its cloud-based offering for the Office Suite. Before we look at this more closely, it is worth looking at what it is not. It is quite different from the Google Apps for Business. It is not a pure Web version of Office 2010 either. Yet, it is a response to Google Apps for Business and the increasing tendency to use cloud-based versions of software. Microsoft offers these services in its own unique way, which could be exhilarating or frustrating, depending on your techno-political affiliation. If you leave these affiliations behind, Office 365 is like any other cloud-inspired software product: some good features, some not so good ones, and many others you are not sure about.

Office 365 is a product aimed at small businesses and is the next version of Microsoft's business productivity online services (BPOS). It consists of Office Web Applications and online versions of SharePoint, Exchange and Lync. Like with Google Apps for Business, Office 365 also has a market place that helps users find partners and other applications. Office Web Apps is the online version of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. SharePoint Online is a set of collaboration tools. Exchange Online is a hosted service of email, calendar and contacts. Lync Online is an instant messaging and communications service. So, Office 365 has an extremely broad set of features. It has unified communications, business intelligence, content management, collaboration tools, enterprise search and other features. It also offers the option of purchasing Office as a subscription.

Microsoft, thus, has three sets of offerings related to the Office Suite. One is the outright purchase of a version of Office in the conventional way. The second option, particularly for a consumer, is to use Windows Live. It has a large set of products including limited word processing, mail and Outlook Connecter for free, but with some ads. The third is Office 365, where you get the full Office Suite and other products for a subscription. It is here that Office 365 differs from the Google Apps for Business, which has no downloadable productivity suite. If you are on Google Apps but offline, there isn't anything that you can do. But with Office 365, you can continue to use the Office products as long as you have paid the subscription fee. But Office 365 makes commercial sense only for a company with at least 25 employees.

Office 365 integrates your PC with mobile platforms such as a Windows 7 phone or iPhone. It works with Mac as well. For $6 per user, you also get 25 GB of storage free. A subscription also obviates the need for frequent upgrades. The launch of Office 365 is, thus, a significant move for Microsoft. We have to wait and see how Google and others react.