I saw something new this past weekend: A laptop at the head table of a wedding. I was at my niece’s wedding and the master of ceremonies had a laptop to keep his agenda flowing smoothly and to come up with interesting games and tidbits to share with the guests.
This is Generation Z and they only know a life in which they are connected electronically — anywhere. And let’s be honest, the rest of us aren’t far behind them. Monolithic Microsoft understands this and doesn’t want to be left behind by the likes of Sun and Google, which is likely one reason they introduced Office 365.
Often, new business technology has been out for a while before customers start asking about it, but we started receiving inquiries about Office 365 as soon as it was released on June 28.
At first blush, Office 365 looks like it is just Microsoft’s cloud version of Office, but it is much more than that. And thanks to three senior IT analysts — Mike Hatfield, John Patterson and Shaun Hughes — I got to understand how.
It does in fact include a full version of Microsoft Office — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. — which you can access online using a web browser, if that’s all you want. You pay a fee for usage, starting at $7 per user per month, and you do not need to buy any software. Besides bypassing the up-front capital cost, you also benefit from being able to share files online.
If you’ve already invested in training for Microsoft Office, this is a low cost way of moving into the cloud without having to re-train your staff. That is an advantage Office 365 has over competing products, simply because many people already use Microsoft products on their desktops.
You can also create your own basic website using Office 365’s design and layout templates, themes, clip art, stock photos and backgrounds. It won’t be the same as getting a professional web design firm to do it for you, but it will get you online.
But the driving reason for moving to Office 365 probably lies in the higher-end products like Exchange, SharePoint and Lync. With these products now being offered in the cloud, you can share calendar data, organize and conduct video meetings, implement business workflows, build team websites and manage documents, all online. These are powerful enterprise products that used to need expensive servers to run, but now can be utilized without that large investment in hardware.
One of these products, SharePoint, can bypass the Office 365 web limitations. It allows for websites that go far beyond what is offered in Office 365, so it offers the possibility of building sophisticated websites and then loading them up on Office 365.
Also, if you have a mobile device with Wi-Fi connectivity, there are a number of web applications you can use to access your Office 365 data.
A few weeks ago, Microsoft announced at its Worldwide Partner Conference that Customer Relationship Management is going to be part of Office 365 before the end of the year, so CRM functionality such as maintaining client records and sales pipelines will be part of it as well.
But it does come with two important caveats: The Internet is not always available, and it is not always secure. Your online data is behind a user ID and a password, but it does not have the higher-end security elements such as Virtual Private Networks. It is in fact as secure as any website can be, but the trouble is that compared to a laptop, for example, there are a lot more people who can be attempting to hack their way in.
Office 365 does come with virus protection, spam filtering, 99.9 per cent up-time guarantee and robust backup facilities. And it is behind a secure sockets layer — like online banking sites, for example, which encrypts data while it is being transmitted. You don’t have to worry about security patches or upgrades. Also, online security issues are being addressed by all vendors of cloud-based systems and they will be solved with such things as hardware keys, for example.
Most people typically use only the products mentioned above in a run of a day. All that remains are the enterprise-specific computer applications and Enterprise Resource Planning or accounting systems; move those into the cloud and pretty soon tablets might be all the equipment people will need.
Office 365 comes in a Professional subscription for organizations with fewer than 25 people, an Enterprise subscription and a special plan for educational institutions.
Using the software could be as simple as using such things as Word and Excel online, but if you are thinking of using some of the enterprise products mentioned above, that’s a whole new game and you’d do well to get reputable consultants to advise you.