Microsoft on Tuesday announced that it will combine several of its key productivity solutions into a seamless hosted cloud subscription service for businesses of all sizes. Called Office 365, the upcoming service provides customers with access to hosted cloud services, rich local applications, and web-based solutions. It will be expanded to include educational users after the initial release sometime in 2011.

"Office 365 is more than a new brand," said Kurt DelBene, president of the Microsoft Office Division. "It's a progressive approach to cloud applications. We designed Office 365 to work for a business of one or a business of one million and one."

Office 365 might be more than a brand, but the first big bit of news is that this new offering is indeed replacing some previous and familiar brands, including Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), Office Live Small Business, and Live@edu. A single brand should provide a clearer picture to customers, but it also consolidates a lot of previously separate functionality under one roof, too.

There are two versions in the initial beta version, which is available now: Office 365 Beta for small businesses and Office 365 Beta for enterprises. Both are subscription services that include access to Office Web Apps, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Lync Online (a next-generation version of Office Communications Server).

The small business version targets businesses with 25 or fewer employees and will cost $6 per user, per month. The enterprise version adds the Office 2010 Professional Plus client software, 24x7 support, and other features, and will cost $2 to $24 per user, per month, and have volume-license options.

Microsoft says the cloud-hosted services will work through all major web browsers—including Internet Explorer (IE), Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome—and via popular smartphones and portable devices, including Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry and the Apple iPhone and iPad.

If you're interested in checking out Office 365, a beta is currently available for signup via the Office 365 website.