7 Key Features of the Office 365 Beta

A first look at the public beta of the much-anticipated successor to the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite.

Microsoft has released the general beta of Office 365, and there's a lot to see. Announced in October, Office 365 is perhaps the company's most ambitious effort yet to transition its traditional software business to the cloud.

Office 365 will replace the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS). Set for release later this summer, Office 365 is a major upgrade of BPOS. The latter consists of Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Office Communications Server (OCS) Online. Office 365 brings Exchange, SharePoint and the Microsoft successor to OCS, called Lync Server.

While Office 365 vastly improves upon those products, it also brings many of the features of the traditional Office suite to the cloud. But to be clear, Microsoft is touting a hybrid approach to Office 365. The typical user will run the Office client when they have access to it, and the Web version when that's the only option, according to Microsoft. Office 365 is also designed to let users collaborate with others in the cloud, whether or not they have access to Office.

If you sign up to test the beta, here's a condensed look at some of the features you'll see:

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Figure 1. Viewing a Word document in a Mozilla Firefox browser with the Office 365 beta.
  1. Office Web Apps. Users can view and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents with a Web browser. The documents can also be accessed by any team member using the traditional Office client. Multiple users can edit documents and spreadsheets from the Web client. The updated Silverlight-based Web app boasts an improved experience with faster page loads and higher fidelity.

  2. Microsoft Office Professional Plus. For enterprises that don't want to shell out several hundred dollars for a permanent Office license, Office Professional Plus offers the benefits of the full Office suite with the services offered by Office 365 online for a monthly fee. This will appeal to shops that have fluctuating headcounts or those that don't want to invest capital in software licenses. Included are all the apps offered in Office 2010 Professional such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access and Publisher. It also includes SharePoint Workspace 2010 and Lync Server 2010. Office Professional Plus includes support for Office Web Apps, which enable sharing of documents on SharePoint Online. A key feature in the Office Professional Plus suite is the ability to coauthor, allowing for both client and Web-based collaboration of documents and spreadsheets.

  3. Feature Parity in Exchange. With the delivery of Exchange Online and Office 365, Microsoft says there's feature parity with the on-premises and online versions. Each user can store up to 25GB per mailbox and send messages up to 25MB apiece.

  4. Collaboration. Administrators can empower end users to create SharePoint Team Sites where members of groups can collaborate on documents. Individuals can create virtual teams and shared contact databases. Users can post documents to SharePoint Online sites. Workgroup members don't need an Office 365 subscription.

  5. Conflict Resolution. When people are simultaneously editing a document, Office 365 has a conflict resolution engine. When there's a conflict in any of the Office 365 document types, users receive an alert. Users can see who's sharing a document.

  6. Smartphone Access. Users can access Office documents in their native format from SharePoint Online if they have phones based on Microsoft Windows Phone 7. For those using iPhones, Android devices or BlackBerry devices, the data appears in a browser.

  7. Lync Online. An IM window allows users to see who's online in their network. It works with Office 365 users as well as anyone connected to Exchange Server 2007/2010. Lync also can connect external users with Windows Live IDs. Users can chat, make telephone calls, videoconference, share desktops and conduct meetings. A free Web app lets you invite non-Lync users to a meeting.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.