Office 365, the cloud-based versions of Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint and other products, became available in a public beta Monday with Microsoft promising general availability later this year. So far, 100,000 organizations have signed up to test Office 365, which will replace and expand upon Microsoft's current cloud-based productivity service, the Business Productivity Online Suite.
Microsoft is offering two beta programs, one designed for small businesses of up to 25 employees who need basic email, calendar and website services, and an enterprise beta program for organizations of all sizes that comes with extras such as Active Directory, advanced configuration and control tools, archiving and 24/7 support.
(REAL-WORLD TEST: First look at Microsoft Office 365)
Microsoft also opened up the Office 365 Marketplace, an app store with 100 apps and 400 professional services distributed by Microsoft partners.
Microsoft is hoping Office 365 will appeal to customers who might otherwise be tempted to switch from the on-premises version of Exchange to a cheaper Web-based service. Microsoft, which has long dominated the corporate email and office tools market, is being challenged by Google Apps for Business and some smaller players such as an open source cloud company called Open-Xchange. (See also:"Open-source challenge to Microsoft Exchange gains steam")
Microsoft has been fighting a war of words over cloud-based software with Google, and is pitching itself as a superior alternative because of Microsoft's experience handling the security and regulatory needs of business customers and because of customers' own familiarity with Microsoft technologies, which could arguably make it difficult to switch.
In addition to Exchange and SharePoint, Office 365 provides access to the on-premises version of Microsoft Office and Office Web Apps, a less capable version of Office designed for light editing and document sharing. This is one area where Google argues that it has a leg up over Microsoft, since Google Docs offers a complete document creating and editing service online, instead of splitting the functionality across two products.
Office 365 includes additional enterprise services, however, including Lync Online, the Web-based version of Microsoft's unified communications platform. (See also: "Microsoft Lync: Take to the cloud or keep it in-house?")
Although Office 365 isn't restricted to customers of any particular size, Microsoft says 70% of organizations that signed up for the limited beta were small businesses. This isn't surprising, given that small businesses are less likely to have the expertise to manage complicated server software.
Microsoft hasn't yet said exactly when in 2011 Office 365 will exit the beta stage. Pricing starts at $6 per user per month.
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