Microsoft has announced that its Office 365 software is now available in the cloud in public beta status. The company is particularly focused on how the new platform can benefit small and mid-sized businesses in terms of both productivity and the cost savings  offered by moving IT functions to the cloud. Microsoft expects more than 100,000 potential customers to test-drive the software in the coming weeks.

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Office 365 rolls up on-demand email, collaboration tools and communications via hosted Exchange, SharePoint and Lync software services. Microsoft’s hope is that the broad range of IT decision-makers already leveraging these applications in on-premise deployments will be wowed by the advantages of the hosted versions during the trial and will commit to full-on cloud-based usage when the migration option is made available later this year (on a date that Microsoft has yet to announce).

In a blog post, Microsoft corporate vice president Kirk Koenigsbauer notes how Office 365 can support smaller organizations:

We’ve been in the cloud for years supporting large enterprises such as Shell and DuPont, but Office 365 takes that same technology power and delivers it to small businesses.  More than 70 percent of the people who signed up for the limited beta were small businesses, so it clearly strikes a chord.

The Microsoft blog cites several examples of small businesses using the cloud-based Office 365 platform, including Dallas Neurosurgical, a Texas-based medical practice that is using the platform to help share medical images with its affiliates and to allow its physicians to do remote follow-up care with patients recovering from surgery. The blog quotes Stephen Cracknell, managing partner for US Medical IT, the Microsoft partner that provides Dallas Neurosurgical with those tools:

Our goal was to make it possible for Dallas Neurosurgical patients to visit their local primary care physician for follow-up, and allow that physician to easily collaborate with the specialist. Office 365 makes that possible with high- definition videoconferencing and application sharing.

Part of the allure, from Microsoft’s perspective, is on-demand, usage-based pricing versus flat fees for on-premises licensing. The company believes the pricing will invite “experimentation” and step up the use of additional platforms and services by enterprise organizations, particularly those that may have challenging IT budgets.