Microsoft releases major Office 365 update for business

Microsoft releases major Office 365 update for business

Forrester has said the suite has improved, but also warns of vendor lock-in

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Microsoft has upgraded its existing Office 365 cloud email and collaboration suites for businesses, as well as introduce new bundles, growing even more the list of Office 365 editions, which some analysts and users had already termed somewhat confusing.

The components of the Office 365 suites for businesses, like the web-hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync, have been upgraded to the latest 2013 code base of the products.

In addition, Microsoft has introduced three new configurations of the suite. Office 365 ProPlus, which had been previously announced, includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, InfoPath, Access and Lync. Customers can download it from Microsoft data centers and install it on up to 5 Windows PCs or Macs. It costs US$144 (£95) per user, per year if bought as a standalone suite.

Meanwhile, Office 365 Small Business Premium, aimed at organisations with 1 to 10 employees, includes Office ProPlus, along with Exchange Online, Lync Online and SharePoint Online. It costs $150 (£99) per user, per year.

Finally, Office 365 Midsize Business, designed for organizations with 10 to 250 employees, adds a basic set of IT administration controls, such as Active Directory integration, as well as phone support during business hours. It costs $180 (£119) per user, per year.

These three new editions join an existing six others for businesses, as well as several different sets for educational institutions and government agencies.

Kirk Gregersen, general manager in the Office Division, said Microsoft wants to give customers flexibility and a variety of options when deploying Office 365, including the ability to mix and match different editions to cater to different users.

However, other competitors have taken a different tack, including Google, which offers just a few variations of its Apps cloud email and collaboration suite, a strategy that sacrifices variety in favour of simplicity.

Office 365 for business was launched in mid-2011, amidst criticism that Microsoft had taken too long to release a viable competitor for Google Apps, which has been available since 2006.

That first wave of Office 365 suites was based on the 2010 editions of SharePoint, Lync and Exchange. It included Office Web Apps, a browser-based version of Office 2010, and also offered customers the option of adding the full Office 2010 Professional Plus productivity application suite via a subscription model.

Now, Office 365 has been adopted by one in five of Microsoft's enterprise customers, and small and medium business customers have grown 150 percent in the past year, according to the company. 

The new and upgraded Office 365 bundles are available today in 69 markets and 17 languages, and will be available in the second quarter in 20 more markets and 16 more languages.

Microsoft last year decided to also brand as Office 365 the new subscription-based version of the Office suite for consumers, calling it Office 365 Home Premium. A version available via the traditional perpetual-license model is also available under the name Office 2013. These consumer versions of the Office suite became available last month.

Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz said that Microsoft has made improvements with the new suite, but warned businesses of vendor lock-in. 

"Office 2013 offers an improved user experience across all products. Office 2013 is a major release, and the investment pays off across all of the products in the Office family. One critical improvement is a simpler and more powerful user experience," said Koplowitz.

"Integration across the product family drives value. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Microsoft designed each product to leverage other products in the family, and integration is provided out of the box."

He added: "Integration can also drive lock-in. The deep integration can be powerful, but it also can lock you into a broad family of products. Ultimately, it impedes the ability to bring in best-of-breed products and could over time lock you into a Microsoft-dominated stack."

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