Office 365 for Business: What to Expect for 2013

Microsoft continues to plow forward with its cloud strategy and the move to become a devices and services company rather than a simple purveyor of software. In addition to this weekend's launch of the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, last week saw the consumer-focused launch of Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium. Business users who want to get the latest and greatest in the cloud have only a few more weeks to wait until the benefits of Office 2013 are scheduled to launch in the Office 365 business editions.

Of course, it's not just the new version of Office that business users can look forward to -- they'll also get the full 2013 server component of Office 365, including Microsoft Exchange Server 2013, Lync Server 2013, and SharePoint 2013. The Office suite is a mainstay of business, of course, but it's the server products that organizations can build ROI on. Let's take a look at what you can expect from the new Office 365 editions for business.

Related: Microsoft Brings the Cloud to the Masses with Office 2013

First, as far as what new plans Microsoft will offer and their pricing, take a look at Dan Holme's predictions in "Office 2013 and Office 365 for Business: Dizzying Choices." Microsoft hasn't made any official announcement about pricing and availability yet, of course, but Dan's list looks pretty logical. All should be clear after the business launch on February 27.

For the Exchange Online component, Office 365 users certainly have some nice new features to look forward to. With Exchange 2013, even users in the cloud can look forward to improved e-discovery capabilities and data loss prevention (DLP) features. Also, due to the new way Exchange 2013 implements public folders as special mailboxes, Office 365 users will be able to use public folders for the first time.

"I know a lot of customers are going to be happy," said Aamir Shah, senior cloud business manager at En Pointe Technologies, about the inclusion of public folders with Office 365. "That was a big thing for a lot of our customers in choosing whether to go on premises or go into the cloud. Public folders, for a lot of the customers I was talking to, was a hard stop for them." En Pointe Technologies is an Office 365 reseller as well as providing consulting services around cloud decisions and full migration support for customers who opt to move to Microsoft's cloud solution.

Office 365 is much more than just email and Exchange, but as Shah said, "It's always around Exchange first. It's the first thing everyone wants to talk about." Shah suggested that customers have typically looked at the other components of Office 365 -- Lync, SharePoint -- as something they might want to implement "down the road." However, recently that trend seems to be changing somewhat. "Now with the idea that the mobile workforce is getting more and more prevalent, SharePoint is being used as that tool to connect back and forth with remote users." Customers are looking for ways of moving beyond simple email to get better collaboration benefits, and SharePoint Online is a good solution.

Shah also pointed out how easy it was to get users interested in Lync just by showing it in action. Furthermore, Lync on premises can be a complicated infrastructure to deploy and administer. As for the hosted version, "It's insanely simple," Shah said. "If you're looking at just being able to call PC to PC and still have screen sharing, IM, voice and video -- just PC to PC -- very easy to use. If you want to be able to call cell phones and landlines, then yes, in the cloud it will take a little bit more time, a little bit more work to put that in place." Shah also mentioned that Lync 2013 in Office 365 has a nice UI refresh and includes a web client.

For Office 365 administrators, you can expect improvements to the web-based administrative portal and the PowerShell scripting interface. Exchange 2013 already streamlined management into one web console, the Exchange Administration Center. My guess is the Office 365 changes will follow the same design principles: simple look, optimized for touch where possible (in line with the new Windows interface) -- and hopefully not losing functionality along the way.

However, if you still find Office 365 management too complicated, you might be interested in taking a look at the new 365 Command released this week by MessageOps. 365 Command is a hosted solution that lets you completely do away with PowerShell because it handles the code for you when necessary. In addition to giving you complete control of your Office 365 environment through a dashboard GUI, you also get reporting with export capability and map views of where your users' mailboxes are physically housed -- just in case you have data residency concerns.

For even deeper integration, 365 Command has an optional 365 Command Active Directory Add-in that lets you perform additional administrative tasks that would otherwise require tools such as adsiedit.msc. MessageOps is currently offering a free trial of 365 Command, which you can sign up for on the company's website. This certainly looks like it might be a nice add-on for both new and existing Office 365 subscribers, particularly if you're not a fan of PowerShell scripting.

There's a lot to look forward to in the Office 365 business editions, whether you're an existing customer or just considering moving your business to the Microsoft service. Of course, Microsoft did experience an outage last week related to "routine maintenance," which seems to say that questions remain as to how reliable this or any hosted service can be. As always, companies need to evaluate what they gain in the cloud against the cost (or potential cost) of making the switch.

Learn More: Office 365 for Everyone - how nice!

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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