While the world is still struggling to crawl out from under the financial disaster of the past few years, in the tech industry at least, things are finally getting better. I see this most clearly in the resurgence in live events, where businesses are once again paying to send employees around the country or the world for IT training purposes. I attended two tech conferences in April, and May brings Microsoft's mammoth TechEd conference, being held a bit early this year in Atlanta. (I'm guessing the high heat and humidity of last year's show, in equally balmy New Orleans, had something to do with the scheduling.) Not coincidentally, as summer arrives, things are heating up on the Microsoft productivity front as well.

 

Office 365 for Small Business

Back in the January issue, I wrote about Microsoft Office 365 (“What You Need to Know About Microsoft Lync 2010, Office 365, IE9, and Windows Phone Carriers,” InstantDoc ID 129032), which will replace Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) when it's released in final form later this year. At the time, Office 365 was available only in a limited, private beta. But now it's in public beta, so anyone can get in. I strongly recommend checking it out: This solution will appeal to individuals and small businesses in addition to the medium-sized businesses and enterprises that might seem like more likely targets for this service.

As a quick refresher, Office 365 provides (Microsoft) hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync. Unlike BPOS, these are the latest, 2010-era versions of the products, with all the functional advantages the on-premises versions of the servers include.

But Office 365 has other advantages over BPOS as well: For one, it's cheaper and can be licensed for individual use, whereas BPOS required five or more client licenses per account. And Microsoft will offer Office 365 in numerous plans, with an escalating series of capabilities and monthly per-user costs, providing customers with more choice.

It's these two benefits that make Office 365 so interesting, in my opinion. Now, individuals and small businesses have access to the same Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync 2010 capabilities that were previously available only to larger and more sophisticated (and deep-pocketed) corporations.

So what's the experience like? You can find out now: The Office 365 public beta includes access to the Small Business version of the service. I've been using Office 365 since last fall, and I'm leaning toward using it going forward, both as an individual and as a (very) small business of sorts (OK, as the writing team of me and my co-author working on our next book). And I suspect that the same things that excite me about Office 365 will drive individuals and small businesses to the product as well.

 First, let's talk price: Office 365 Small Business costs $6 per user per month. That works out to $72 per year, or $12 more per user per year than Google Apps for Business. Google does offer a free version of Google Apps as well, so there's an argument to be made that the smallest of businesses—and individuals, too—will simply go that route because free always trumps paid. But that's a bit simplistic, because it takes only a small amount of research to realize that Microsoft’s offering is far more compelling and complete. Google's free service is also lacking some critical pieces, including uptime guarantees (if the service goes down, too bad), BlackBerry and Microsoft Outlook compatibility, and some security features.

So the real comparison comes down to whether Office 365 is worth an additional $12 per year over Google Apps. That’s a no brainer: We're talking real Exchange 2010 email, calendar, and contacts, along with full Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policy support so you can ensure that your employees' mobile devices won't leak sensitive data if they're lost or stolen.

Thurrott Fig1 EAS_0

 
It also includes real SharePoint 2010 collaboration and a privately-hosted version of Office Web Apps, with web-based versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. And while this is a bit of a wild card for many new customers, in the sense that it's likely just something they're not familiar with, Office 365 also includes a hosted version of Lync, which provides nice presence and online communications capabilities that tie neatly into the other service, and, if you've got it on the desktop, the Office 2010 apps as well.

And you're going to want Office on the desktop, of course. Where higher-end, enterprise-oriented versions of Office 365 offer plans with subscription-based access to the full Office 2010 Professional Plus suite, with the Small Business version of Office 365, small businesses and individuals are on their own. They can use Office Web Apps, but if they have Office 2010 (or, with slightly less functionality, Office 2007) already, they can use that instead. And there's even a nice download that will auto-configure the end-user apps to work with your new online service. I was able to connect my own copies of Outlook, SharePoint Workspace, and the various productivity apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) to my Office 365-hosted services very easily, and setting up OneNote to sync notes to SharePoint Online was likewise a quick and simple process.

And that's another reason why this service is so exciting: For individuals and small businesses, these capabilities were so far beyond reach before that they might as well have not existed. But once you tie Office to the hosted services in Office 365, these apps come to life in ways that are both exciting and empowering to users.

 The phone is a similar story. Thanks to the ubiquitous nature of EAS, connecting to your Exchange Online-based contacts, email, and calendar from any leading smart phone—iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, whatever—is straightforward. But on Windows Phone, it's even better because you can quickly link up with SharePoint Online via that device's SharePoint Workspace Mobile, part of the Office hub, and access (and edit) your documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on the go. It's the full meal deal.

What this amounts to is very powerful and professional tools at reasonable prices and a service that can make any business, no matter how small, not just look like but operate like a high-quality operation. This isn't form over function—it's the best possible function at the right price.

I do believe there's room for an ever lower-end SMB version of Office 365—something that could compete with free and perhaps resemble the $2 per user per month "kiosk" offering that Microsoft offers to Office 365 Enterprise users. But even in its current state, the Small Business version of Office 365 has quickly reestablished Microsoft's dominance in this crucial market.

Google should get some credit for getting to this market more quickly. Its product has been hailed as being particularly well suited for small businesses that don't have the same security, integration, or cost concerns as enterprises. But Office 365 Small Business makes Google's offering look unsophisticated and cobbled together by comparison.

 

A Decade of SharePoint

Speaking of Office 365, one of the many things I've really enjoyed about using this product is getting to know SharePoint 2010 a bit better. SharePoint is at an interesting place this year. Microsoft says the product is officially ten years old, but its lineage is complex, and pieces of the SharePoint puzzle surely date back further than that. SharePoint is also often credited with being Microsoft's fastest growing server product ever, and the company today claims over 100 million users, over $1.3 billion in annual revenues, and exposure in 78 percent of the Fortune 500.

So SharePoint is really a phenomenon—a platform and an ecosystem that’s extremely successful and yet curiously stealthy as well. Most individuals could easily identify high-profile Microsoft products like Windows, Windows Server, Office, or Xbox. But to many, SharePoint is an enigma.

This is true for many people who have heard of SharePoint, too. And I think I know why: SharePoint is an amazingly versatile product, and like many similar Microsoft products—Windows, of course, but also ubiquitous applications like Outlook—it’s this versatility that makes it both indispensible and hard to describe.

SharePoint’s origins point to its central purpose as a document management (repository and sharing) solution, but what first caught my attention years ago was that it enabled information workers to set up their own internal collaboration sites, without requiring administrator intervention. This is such a freeing capability for users, but it also had the side effect of making SharePoint very popular with those who have access to it. This is a trend that continues to this day: Of the users with access to SharePoint at work, over 62 percent of them actually use it. I suspect that those who use it once are quickly hooked. It's the Pringles of technology: You can't just use it once.

According to Microsoft, the versatility of SharePoint has had some interesting effects on the product and its users, the latter of which are now using it in ways that the product's inventors never originally envisioned. And even in my own limited experience, I've seen how the product's malleability can lead to interesting scenarios. There are traditional SharePoint sites, of course, with document libraries, lists, discussions, calendars and more. There are hosted versions of the Office Web Apps. And there are public (port 80), traditional websites. Each of these things can be interrelated, but each is also its own environment, too, and can be accessed and logically considered as separate entities.

Too, you can access SharePoint resources from such a wide variety of ways. Microsoft's free SharePoint Designer tool works just fine with SharePoint sites and websites, and if you have Office 2010 SharePoint Workspace, you can both access and sync SharePoint content to your PC, allowing offline access. Traditional Office applications—Word, Excel, PowerPoint—can easily be configured to work with SharePoint document libraries instead of the local PC, of course, and if you're lucky enough to have a Windows Phone, you get a full-featured SharePoint Workspace Mobile experience too.

I did ask Microsoft if it had any plans to extend a native SharePoint experience to other mobile platforms—and when you consider the work that Microsoft is doing on Apple's iOS platform, with apps like Bing, OneNote, and PhotoSynth, among others, it's not hard to imagine a SharePoint Workspace app on iPhones and iPads. For now, the company says that users of non-Windows Phone 7-based mobile devices will need to access SharePoint via a mobile web browser—your mileage may vary—but that it will have more to say on this topic in the future.

Which is just fine with me: SharePoint is so rich and so versatile that I'll have a lot more to say about this product in the weeks and months ahead. I suspect this is a topic I'll be returning to again and again.