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Last Thursday I gained access to the Office 365 beta. Office 365 is Microsoft’s response to Google Apps with advanced e-mail and content management/storage. Basically it’s your everyday services hosted in the cloud, bought as a monthly subscription. I will not go into pricing since the pricing plans are likely to change during the beta phase. A major difference is that while Google offers a free subscription (with advertising) Microsoft has no such offering (yet).

Office 365 is currently in beta, with a rumored release this summer. But already the service is extremely well packaged and the services and management parts are a delight.

Setup

The setup process is very simple and in just minutes the service is almost fully configured. Initially you choose a temporary domain name for the service (e.g. myservice.onmicrosoft.com), and later on you replace it with your own domain.

Home

The layout is as simple as can be.

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Outlook

Office 365 provides messaging and collaboration using Exchange technology, with Outlook Web Access (web mail and ActiveSync). From here you can manage your inbox, calendar, contacts and tasks. If you have been using Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 the interface looks familiar.

You can also setup your account on a mobile device. I’ve only tested this on my iPhone and iPad, and it works great.

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SharePoint

Office 365 comes with a SharePoint 2010 instance with Office Web Apps. This is the perfect storage for your Office files (and other files of course), and with Office Web Apps you can create and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote-files using your web browser. If you have Microsoft Office installed on your computer you can connect to your SharePoint site and work with your documents live.

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Lync

Lync is a messaging service for voice, text, video and phone with conference capabilities. I’ve not been able to test this yet.

Administration

As an administrator you have access to the Administration view. The layout is one of the greatest I’ve seen in a Microsoft product. It’s very straightforward and it’s easy to find whatever you might be looking for.

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From the Administration you manage Users, Domains and Subscriptions. You can also manage default settings for the applications (Outlook, Lync and SharePoint).

Licensing

Since Office 365 is a subscription based service you buy licenses and distribute them to your users. The beta offers 25 licenses.

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User administration

The user administration is, as everything else in Office 365, very simple.

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After setting up a user you define what services the user will have access to.

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Domain management

You can add your own domain(s) to Office 365 and let users use different domains in their e-mail addresses.

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Here I found the first hick up in Office 365; Microsoft wants control and they want to take over your DNS Zone file. This would be ok since they configure the records properly and let you manage custom A-records and CNAMEs. But by default they point your domain’s A record and www CNAME to SharePoint, and you can’t change this at all.

This however will not work for us since we want them to point to our SiteFactory CMS site. So the alternative would be to have two domains; one for the website and one for Office 365. The workaround for this is to let Microsoft think that they have taken over the DNS Zone, and instead copy all preconfigured DNS records and configure them at your own provider. Microsoft doesn’t check the configured name servers so this works perfectly.

Closing comments

Office 365 is powerful already in its beta phase, and will most likely be a great competitor to Google Apps. The prices are relatively low, but still, Google Apps have free subscription. At our office we use Microsoft Exchange and love it so what’s better than Exchange hosting in the cloud?

During the beta phase we will evaluate Office 365 and when it’s released and the prices are set, we know if we can recommend it to our customers. Even if Microsoft won’t have a free subscription, there is a lot of bang for the buck.

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