With new software, office work headed to the cloud

Rob Benjamin
Rob Benjamin

Most small and medium-sized companies likely will convert their Microsoft Office purchases to an Office365 subscription the next time they need a new copy of Office. The change will offer new features and functionality. Moreover, you’ll no longer have to manage office versions and licensing. Finally, you’ll find Office present on virtually every type of device you and your employees use at work and home.

Bill Gates introduced Microsoft Office to the world in 1988. Since then,  we’ve all become accustomed to using Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and other software. Those core components remain in Office365.  There have always been several different Office bundles that include different applications. Office365 is similarly offered.

What’s new in Office365 is the inclusion of e-mail services that replace the need for a Microsoft Exchange Server.  For very small businesses, Exchange Server was always too expensive to justify. For medium-size businesses, Exchange Server raised the technical requirements needed to keep the business operating. With Office365, the server side expense and upkeep is included in user pricing, meaning a company as small as two employees can enjoy all the technical benefits without the expense or knowledge required for Microsoft Exchange Server.

Office365 also offers Lync Services, or what will soon be known as Skype for Business. This software allows for instant messaging, voice communications and video chat capability.  Best of all, these features are supported by integrating directly with the same address books and contacts you already use in Microsoft Outlook.  Additional features include being able to see if someone is currently working at their desk or away (presence) or if they’re currently working on a particular document. While Microsoft is still working on extending voice functionality to replace traditional phone systems, the other features and functions are available now.

Finally, Microsoft has included SharePoint services with Office365. While the name might not set off any alarms for you, SharePoint services provide a Web-based platform by which companies and organizations can securely share information and collaborate on projects. SharePoint can be used for any and all of the following informational needs: announcements, document and project management, fleet management, frequently asked questions, human resources management and training and certification tracking. There’s little SharePoint can’t do. Best of all, it can be developed over time without a large upfront money or time commitment, meaning your business can grow into it at your own pace. SharePoint was another Microsoft product that didn’t scale down to small- and medium-sized businesses very well, but through Office365 is now affordable for the masses.

Unlike traditional Office “box” products, Office365 allows users to install up to five copies of their software across different devices, including personal computers, tablets and smartphones. Those installations can include Windows, Android and Apple iOS devices. Office365 also includes office Web applications. That means if you have a Web browser, you can log into Office online and use the Web version of all of your Office applications and see your documents — which are synced as part of Office365 OneDrive. As well as having Office basically everywhere you could ever think to use it (I mean, how often are you going to type a business letter in Word on your smartphone?) Office365 includes future features and upgrades as part of the subscription.

Microsoft offers a wide range of pricing plans, including special plans for government and non-profit organizations.  Generally speaking, plans start as low as $5 a month per user and range up to $25 a month per user. Customers can mix and match versions, which is helpful in both containing costs and giving everyone the Office applications they need.

The return on investment for making the switch is difficult to quantify, as Office365 brings valuable tools to the table most small businesses don’t have. For very small businesses, Office365 can delay the purchase of a first server. For small businesses that need to replace a server, Office365 could offer an alternative depending on the need. Rival offerings from Google Apps are worth considering because they’re generally less expensive. But shifting away from core desktop applications we’ve all grown to know and become proficient with is not desirable to most organizations.