Office 365 is a pretty unique name for a product by Microsoft. The story behind it is that Microsoft will be behind your business 24/7/365 when you need it! And if you experience down time with this product, Microsoft will actually reimburse you in cash for that time (99.9% uptime guarantee!). The Office part of the name is obvious: The main product by Microsoft is still Microsoft Office and is widely used by people all over the world.

Note: This article is to give you a conversational perspective of this product. It is not intended to tell you every single detail about it. Microsoft does a fine job of it on their sites and I’ll provide the links to those resources on the web.

Webinar on 7/7/2011 – We are conducting a webinar on Office 365. Here is the link to register if you would like:

What does Office 365 consist of?

Think of what you need to run your business usually: Email, Messaging, ways to create and manage documents and other information for your business, Intranet (or some place where employees can share the info), an external web site. Sounds about right? Well, Office 365 provides you with the following:

  1. Exchange Online – Each employee in your organization gets a 25GB email inbox. They can use the web browser or the Microsoft Outlook client to manage emails. Very convenient!
  2. Microsoft Office Professional Plus applications – Most of the Office 365 plans offer the employees to be able to download the office applications to your desktop/laptop as part of the subscription. That’s a huge deal I think because the Office suites by themselves are not cheap. In addition, each person can also work with their documents online using Office Web Apps functionality.
  3. SharePoint Online – This is my favorite part of it! An almost full fledged SharePoint 2010 experience. More on this a bit later.
  4. Lync Online – Think of Office Live Messenger or Office Communication Services. If you are familiar with any of these, you have seen parts of what Lync can offer. Instant messaging and live meetings are a snap with Lync.

How much does it cost?

There are a variety of ‘flavors’ that Office 365 offers. The plans are referred to as P1, P2 (for Professionals and Small Businesses) and then E1, E2, E3, E4 (for Enterprise customers). The pricing starts at $6/user/month (isn’t that amazing!). The highest price that I have seen is for E4 which is still only $27/user/month (which is still incredible because this option can help you provide Enterprise voice capability and easily replace your entire PBX system).

How is SharePoint Online different from SharePoint 2010 on-premise?

SharePoint Online provides many of the same SharePoint Server 2010 on-premise Enterprise features. For example, InfoPath Forms Services is included so you can show your InfoPath forms (workflow, form library and list forms) directly in the browser, enterprise search gives you robust search results, My Sites features are also present in SharePoint Online. One notably missing feature from this first release is Business Connectivity Services (BCS). Not to worry! It is in the plans to introduce that soon enough in one of the subsequent releases of Office 365 and since there is no upgrade necessary on your part, it will just magically appear one day and you will be notified about it as a customer.

The main difference you have to keep in mind is that you do not have access to the Central Administration site for SharePoint Online in Office 365. Also, you cannot access the web server files. So basically the SharePoint Server administration is offloaded to Microsoft.

Now here’s a difference you are going to like: In Office 365, you can easily invite others outside your organization to collaborate with you within your site collection. That’s a Big benefit in my mind!

How will I build solutions on top of SharePoint Online?

If you buy into Office 365, SharePoint Designer 2010 is about to become your best friend :-). That’s the main application for making customizations to your SharePoint Online environment. Most of what you can do with SharePoint Designer 2010 in a regular on-premise SharePoint 2010 environment is available with SharePoint Online as well. That’s great news because that provides you tons of customization opportunities.

You will not have access to create farm level solutions using Visual Studio 2010 (VS).  VS can still be used by programmers to develop the following types of solutions on top of SharePoint Online:

  • Sandboxed Solutions (scoped to a Site Collection)
  • Programming against the Client Object Model
  • Silverlight and ECMA Script

Check out the SharePoint Online Developers Resource Center to get a better idea of programming opportunities in SharePoint Online.

How do I get started?

That’s the easiest part. It costs nothing to join the trial program. Start here and you will have a fully functional Office 365 deployment within minutes! Choose the E3 plan if you are a large enterprise (or want to pretend to be to see how it works :-)) or choose P1 for small businesses. Then you can manage your licenses by inviting your personnel to join you in the environment and start using it right away. Once your trial is about to expire, you can decide to keep the environment and start paying for it or let it go.

Also note that if you are already a BPOS (Business Productivity Online Services – the older and far less powerful version of Office 365) customer, Microsoft will guide you to transition your content and people to Office 365.

Additional Material/Info on Office 365

Here’s some additional information to keep in mind and get involved. I’ll send more material on it in the future once ready.

Social Media: Check out the Office 365 Blog, Office 365 Facebook page, and Twitter account to connect directly to the team working on this offering.

Video Tutorials: We are looking to create video tutorials on Office 365 within the next couple of months. Look out for that on the SharePoint-Videos site.

Upcoming Article: I have written a MSDN whitepaper on Customizing SharePoint Online using SharePoint Designer 2010. Hopefully, it should be published soon. I’ll send out a link to it through this newsletter once it’s out on the site.