June 28, 2011, 8:06 PM — After more than eight months of hype from Microsoft and analysis from PCWorld and our peers, Microsoft's cloud-based productivity suite, Office 365, formally goes live Tuesday with Microsoft launch events from New York and around the world.
As usual, opinions are varied on whether Microsoft's second take at a cloud-based productivity suite meets the mark or is doomed to total failure. Some have lambasted it as too expensive when compared to competitor Google Docs, others have proclaimed it virtually cost-free.
Much attention has been paid to the core features of the cloud software suite, the hosted Exchange functionality that is essentially a refresh of what Microsoft had to offer with its horrifically named Business Productivity Online Suite, or BPOS. But there are some interesting new offerings within the Office 365 family, features and capabilities that deserve a discussion of their own.
One of the biggest new additions to the suite is the inclusion of Microsoft Lync in Office 365. Lync is Microsoft's rebranded and revamped Office Communications Server, its instant messaging, audio- and videoconferencing product.
Lync is an intriguing addition to the suite. In a time when more small businesses are virtual, on the road, or otherwise physically separated from each other, a slick and integrated real-time communications tools is a must.
There are many other tools used by small businesses for Web-based audio- and videoconferencing, with Skype chief amongst them. But with Skype's impending purchase by Microsoft likely leading to a Skype-Lync integration, Microsoft should be able to find ways to make the more robust Lync offering more interesting to customers.
Already it offers a seamless integration with the Exchange and Outlook messaging stack, giving Outlook users the ability to find out the availability of contacts and connect right from the e-mail client that so many knowledge workers call their day-to-day home. It also offers IT the capability to get some control over what instant messaging is being used by employees, which is important as comparatively high-bandwidth video options gain prominence. And for staff that need to make connections outside of the enterprise, it offers an easy connection to Microsoft's consumer-grade IM product, Windows Live Messenger.