Office 365 in context

By Dale Vile

In the beginning there was Microsoft Office. Well, it sometimes seems that way given how much this software suite has become embedded into the fabric of many businesses over the years.

The truth, of course, is that MS Office emerged as the winner from battles that began in the 1990’s off the back of the so-called ‘PC revolution’. Word processors, spreadsheet tools, presentation software and personal database management systems liberated early PC users and allowed them to take care of their own document and data-related needs. Tools for handling email, shared calendars and shared document stores then enhanced the way people communicated and collaborated in the workplace.

One of the most significant and disappointing outcomes of the competition in this space was the relegation of Lotus Notes to ‘also ran’ status. Now owned by IBM, the Notes back-end server (a.k.a. the Domino) was always the strongest offering for all-round distributed collaboration capability. It ultimately lost out though, because Microsoft did a much better job on the desktop.

Winding the clock forward, the early cloud-based services in the office tools arena failed to set the world alight for similar reasons. While offerings like Google Apps were positioned as a more cost-effective alternative, providing the freedom and flexibility of anytime, anywhere access to tools and data via a browser, that wasn’t enough. Compatibility issues, a reduced feature-set, and an inferior user interface meant that most still opted to stick with the richness and familiarity of the Microsoft Office desktop experience.

Our latest research at Freeform Dynamics on this topic, however, points to an emerging role for browser-based office productivity tools to complement desktop software rather than to replace it. The message that comes through loud and clear is that most users want the best of both worlds – the full desktop experience when using their usual PC or Mac, but the flexibility to access and work on their documents from a home computer or some other machine via a secure browser-based interface when necessary. Furthermore, about two-thirds of those participating in the research said they still wanted a rich experience when working via a browser.

These sentiments underline the significance of Microsoft’s Office 365 play, particularly the option to include desktop software as part of the service subscription. While it’s true to say that Google and others are now doing an excellent job of providing a rich user interface via a browser, Office 365 directly addresses the continued desire for that full desktop office experience. Microsoft acknowledges an important principle that comes through in our research time and time again; while cloud options bring some great benefits with them, businesses want the freedom to mix and match hosted services with on-premise or on-device software so they don’t have to compromise.

Coming back to the user-access part of the equation, there’s obviously an important trend that we haven’t yet touched on – the rise of smartphones and tablets. Locally installed office productivity tools, typically referred to as ‘apps’ in this context, are important here too, both to deliver an optimum user experience and to facilitate offline use when the user is disconnected from the network, or operating over a very slow link.

Historically, though, this has not been a particularly strong area for Microsoft beyond providing the ActiveSync connectivity to Exchange servers that is embedded in most high-end devices. Sure, Mobile Office has been available on Windows devices for years, but this hasn’t helped the majority of business users who have an iPhone, iPad or Android equivalent. But Microsoft seems to be opening up here. At the time of writing, for example, it is just rolling out Mobile Office for iPhones, which could (and hopefully will) mark the beginning of a more inclusive strategy when it comes to the platforms and devices supported by its Office tools.

Meanwhile, there is another dimension to the way in which office productivity solutions are evolving. Feedback gathered during the abovementioned research study confirmed a growing appetite for solutions that embrace the whole spectrum of personal and team productivity facilities. Demand is strong here for everything from the office tools and email capability we have been discussing so far, through full document management, to real time mechanisms such as instant messaging, web conferencing, video conferencing and even IT telephony.

With some of these components being heavily communications-centric, they fit into the hosted deployment model very naturally. This again validates some of the ideas behind Office 365 in terms of providing a total office and collaboration in the cloud, with all of the elements properly integrated.

But how well does all of this promise translate to reality? Well, according to early adopters participating in our study, Office 365 is generally delivering against expectations in terms of overall flexibility, ease of implementation, and the quality of service delivered on an ongoing basis. As with any new offering, we can expect the service to continue developing over the coming months and years, but already Microsoft has done a pretty good job of showing how software and services can be blended to deliver an effective combination of economy, flexibility and richness of user experience.

If you are interested in reading more about the research mentioned in this article, the full report is available for free download here.

Orginally published on Global Knowledge

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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.