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Does Microsoft have what it takes to topple Google Docs?

The Office cloud deconstructed

Construction workers photo via Shutterstock

If you were to start a business today, would you bother buying desktop software for productivity and collaboration? Probably not, you'd employ some software option delivered as a service. For enterprises with a history of legacy, the move to online versions of on-prem is trickier but is being done.

The question, however, is what to use? Microsoft for decades has set the standard while enjoying a healthy customer base. Office has not just dominated documents, for example, it's shaped the culture of desktop-productivity suites. Email has been dictated in business by Outlook.

Today, however, is a new dawn. Not only for rivals – point products and platform providers such as Google and AWS – but entirely new areas, like Slack challenging traditional mediums of communication.

Startups and online entrepreneurs are gobbling up SaaS offerings as fast as they appear. I know of firms that say things like: "We are a business of millennials. When looking at technology we immediately discount anything that has to be installed."

These businesses subscribe to what they want using a credit card and without a single IT person on the payroll.

Microsoft hasn't been standing still – we know that – but after years of new services and cloud acquisitions from Redmond, what are your options today should you want to replicate that traditional on-prem Microsoft personal productivity and collaboration stack?

Migration headaches aside, do we finally have a viable option for an "installation-less" office?

Mail and calendar

Exchange Online provides traditional Microsoft Exchange features without the overhead of managing a server. The corporate directory, mailing groups, delegate access and shared mailboxes are all there through your browser, Outlook client, or iOS and Android app. Microsoft is also offering premium features like eDiscovery, Data Loss Prevention and Advanced Threat Protection to cover security.

On higher plans (Education, E3 and E5), the unlimited online archiving means never running out of cloud storage. There's also email integration with Microsoft's Cloud file storage, so you can attach files back to that cloud home or send them as a traditional attachment.

Third-party vendors are showing an interest in Microsoft's platform, with players like Boomerang and Exclaimer Cloud signatures for Office 365.

Make no mistake, this is the direction Microsoft wants you to head in. It continues to add features that you won't find in Microsoft Exchange, like FindTime and Calender.help (currently in exclusive preview). You might miss running the eseutil command, but this is a nice workload to let the cloud-makers handle.

The biggest objection is the Microsoft-style interface of Outlook. This usually comes from those who live in a personal Gmail account or haven't used Outlook since 2010. Then again, some people just hate Outlook. Watch out for a few technical traps if you do decide to use the installed Outlook software on PC or Mac. There are some feature parity gaps between the versions (Mac has only just introduced read receipts, for example) and both desktop versions struggle with performance if you're locally caching a mailbox with a large number of folders and/or items.

Documents, spreadsheets and presentations

Office is smarter than it used to be thanks to its use of machine learning, with Researcher and Editor functions in Word and Designer, and Morph in PowerPoint, available in both the cloud and desktop versions.

Microsoft was late to online real-time co-authoring, which saw many people try Google Sheets, Google Docs and Slides, and stay with them. Microsoft caught up and added co-authoring support when someone launches the desktop version of the application to do their editing.

The caveat is that the file must live on OneDrive for Business or Sharepoint Online, but it is easy to open the Cloud file from the desktop app as it automatically uploads your changes.

Word Online, Excel Online and Powerpoint Online handle the majority of the basic functions that most people use regularly, but Excel power users will find some gaps. Most glaring is that traditional password protected workbooks won't open in a browser (the Cloud has alternative security tools for restricting permissions) and things like data validation formulas can't be edited in the browser but will still function.

File storage and sharing

Ignoring Microsoft's consumer-grade OneDrive product, in the business space you're faced with OneDrive for Business and or Sharepoint Online. This is where the confusion starts. Sharepoint Online is an empty shell which is beautifully customisable. Several vendors make a nice income from doing just that. Most organisations create a document library and try to use Sharepoint Online like a file server.

Then there's the adoption challenge of explaining to users that OneDrive for Business is their own personal file storage and anything their team is working on should be kept in Sharepoint Online, but they can share files out of OneDrive for Business. Stick to just OneDrive for Business and you isolate files under separate user accounts, relying on individual management of file permissions for sharing. Seriously, don't do this. Microsoft's history drove the birth of two products here, but for the average person it's just confusing.

There's not enough space here to discuss all the things that were wrong with the local sync clients for Microsoft's Cloud storage products. That's not isolated to Microsoft, though, as Google Drive sync can get unhappy quickly too. We've seen some improvements, including the addition of selective sync (for example, choose your own synced folders) but in general it's still not pretty. But for some strange reason, even Cloud-only organisations seem to love having locally synced copies of their files.

Team collaboration

If you thought the file storage products were confusing, let's talk about team collaboration. Microsoft bought Yammer and started integrating it with other products. Then Office 365 Groups was launched, sharing emails, a calendar, files, a notebook and a planner board from inside Outlook (online or desktop). Most recently, Microsoft Teams arrived with its Slack-style conversation channels, bots and gifs, and deep integration with Skype and Office.

Microsoft wants you to use the product you like the best, giving you a choice. For new organisations, Microsoft Teams will probably be where they start but for one thing – it doesn't currently support external users. That's on the roadmap for this year (it's complicated). Yammer does support external networks and external groups.

Once again, there's a ton of functionality and enterprise-grade security in these products, but the adoption can be a little more challenging than just "here's your Slack team invitation".

Video conferencing and IM

Microsoft bought Skype then revamped its Lync communications product into Skype for Business. Skype for Business is deeply embedded into Office 365 products, allowing for presence awareness and IM directly from within an email of a Microsoft Teams chat. If you're used to using Skype, you'll need to wrap your head around the differences in Skype for Business.

The acquisition also saw Microsoft's consumer Skype product change from using standalone Skype accounts to using the consumer Microsoft Account platform for authentication. We then saw a cross-platform attempt where Skype for Business users could add stand alone Skype accounts to their Skype for Business client.

This hasn't rolled out to Skype for Business on the Mac, though, so if you install that desktop client on an Apple, you won't be able to add legacy consumer Skype contacts unless they've converted to a Microsoft account.

Other products

Microsoft continues to add more products to the Office 365 plans at no extra cost. Without being an extensive list, Delve is the search we've been waiting for, My Analytics proves you spend too much time in meetings and Stream is your corporate YouTube. The rate of innovation is impressive, but you need to keep up with the announcements to find out what you’re entitled to now.

Following the money

The Software as a Service per user model upsets the on-prem world who love a per device license, but that's SaaS for you. You can buy Office 365 directly from Microsoft, from a reseller or cloud solutions provider or bundled in with your Enterprise Agreement. The Office 365 plan structures are split into Business and Enterprise, but you can mix and match within your organisation. It's possible to license some people for the Enterprise E3 product set, give some people extra E5 products and give others Exchange Online only. There are restrictions around this, though – for example, Microsoft Bookings can't be added to an E3 license and My Analytics can't be added to Business Premium licence.

Identity and Access management

Microsoft paved the way with Active Directory in the on-prem world so, naturally, now we have Azure Active Directory that gives identity management across all of the Office 365 products – and often without the users even knowing. Bulk admin tasks can be automated using Powershell. The directory management still looks a little technical, but having one place to block a user's access to everything beats having isolated pockets of identities across multiple different providers.

Backup and recovery

Cloud vendors must back up their systems as a catastrophic loss of data would mean the end of their business. Their backups are for their protection, not yours, and Microsoft's retention policies vary from product to product. You can, however, customise the Exchange Online policies. Item-level recovery is available for a deleted item or mailbox within these retention periods. Availability is managed via geographically distributed Database Availability Groups but remember these are not your servers.

Outages and recovery time frames are totally out of your hands and the responsibility of Microsoft engineers.

You can debate if that's a pro or a con. An industry of third-party backup vendors has sprung up supporting Exchange Online, OneDrive for Business and Sharepoint online, but their prices and features vary. If you want peace of mind that your data is also copied outside of the Microsoft infrastructure, do your research before settling on a provider.

Finally

Without legacy systems it is possible to work completely in the cloud. Office 365 has plenty of collaboration features beyond Office simple files and emails and is by no means a poor relation to desktop Office. That complexity may put people off and if you wanderinto the realms of other cloud products (like time recording systems), you may end up adopting a Google-first approach when it comes to integration. Microsoft does have the history of business collaboration and productivity, however, so it is worth spending time exploring their cloudy descendants. ®


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