Microsoft Office 365 beta: Useful, frustrating

The suite of cloud-based business applications offers definite advantages -- if the rough edges can be smoothed out.

Overall organization

Office 365's biggest problem is how easily it is to become lost while navigating and not be able to get back to a different part of the suite. Depending on where you are at the moment, there may or may not be sitewide navigation. For example, when you're building your Web site, there's no navigation away from the site-building tool; you have to use your browser's back button to get back to wherever you were before you started building the site.

Similarly, when you're building a team site using SharePoint tools -- for example, on the page setting permissions -- you can directly navigate only to certain portions of Office 365, and you have to use your back button more than you want. It's also easy to become lost and forget exactly where you came from, because there are often no clues about where you've been. You'll find similar problems at other places as well, such as when you're managing groups in the Exchange administrative tools section.

This gives Office 365 the feel of a group of separate apps and services that are only partially integrated; the suite is essentially a collection of existing services with only some common navigation. Keep in mind, however, that Office 365 is still in beta; the navigation and other issues may be fixed when the final version is released.

The bottom line

Office 365 is certainly more powerful than its chief competitor, Google Apps, but more difficult and confusing to use as well. And Office 365 would likely be overkill for some businesses, especially smaller ones. Still, for companies that need all of its power and are willing to put up with sometimes frustrating navigation and a potentially long learning curve, it can be a worthwhile productivity-booster and money-saver.

Companies that want an all-in-one suite of the hosted versions of Microsoft's communications and collaboration servers should take a look at Office 365. It's a compelling offering, particularly for small and midsize companies.

Organizations will also have to balance whether the suite's Web-site-building capabilities are up to their standards. Microsoft would do well to offer a version of Office 365 that includes the ability to host Web sites and not force companies to use rudimentary Web-building tools. And it should turn Office 365 into a true, integrated offering, rather than a set of tools that co-exist uneasily. If it did all that, Office 365 would be quite useful.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

This story, "Microsoft Office 365 beta: Useful, frustrating" was originally published by Computerworld.

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