How can Office365 help small business?

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With the advent of Office365, SharePoint has never been more accessible to small business, but how can this product designed for the enterprise, be useful and cost effective for small business?
I’ve just started my evaluation of Office 365 to see what it can really offer to small business, is it good value for money and what opportunities are there available for an IT professional. To start with I wanted to give a high level evaluation:
Small Business
The first thing that has struck me about the Office 365 offer is the number of different plans, how they work together and how complicated they are. In short, there is 1 professional plan (P1), 4 enterprise plans (E1-4) and 2 kiosk desk worker plans (K1-2) – with prices ranging from £2.60pm to £17.75pm. I don’t really want to reproduce Microsoft’s sales material (which you can see at http://www.microsoft.com/office365), but here’s my first look review:
Professional Plan P1
This plan really looks like excellent value for money at around £4pm – it offers a hosted exchange, hosted Lync, SharePoint (which includes a team site and public facing internet site), office web apps and various other bits and bobs. Small businesses really can get the most out of this if they can use the SharePoint internet site as their internet presence website, and hosting their email through exchange – this could save on both website and email hosting costs.
Whilst Microsoft’s web apps are great for doing a small amount viewing and editing documents, emails etc, you really can’t beat working with a proper office client (like Outlook, Excel etc) – but as Microsoft’s offering is clearly geared more towards this, for me it’s a positive thing. If however, you’re looking to save money on office software, it may not be the right choice – I think Google Apps definitely offers better online office applications.
One final thing I will say is that whilst it has been made much simpler to get your domain and emails set-up in Office 365, it still feels like somebody without IT support experience could still struggle to get the support they need. By no means does this mean they need full time IT presence, but there would be a definite benefit in having some form of IT support, for set-up and general administration. This does present an opportunity for IT support professionals looking to branch out by themselves though!
Enterprise Plans
After looking at the professional plan, the enterprise plans left me a bit confused – for starters the E1 plan, whilst being more expensive than the P1 plan (by about £2.50pm) doesn’t include the office web apps (the E2 plan at £10.50pm includes office web apps). On closer inspection though, you can start to see that the enterprise plans are a very different beast, with much more focus on larger numbers of users in a single organisation, and on premises deployment. These plans are clearly not aimed at the small business market, but they do have a couple of features that would be of interest.
One thing I didn’t like about the P1 plan was the restrictions to 1 site collection in SharePoint – now this is probably because I’m a SharePoint developer, but it does feel a bit restrictive. In the enterprise plans however, there is much more freedom around sites.
Secondly, and for me most interestingly, the E3 plan (for £15.75pm) has Office Pro Plus bundled with it. This really perked my interest, and given the way office 365 works, feels like the plan I would choose. My problem here though, is that this plan is one of the higher end plans, and is meant to be targeting bigger operations than a small, 1 to 5 man office.
Choosing Your Plan
So how do you choose – well maybe you think – “well I’ll start with P1, and upgrade later”…WRONG!! Currently Microsoft does not support upgrading from P1 to the enterprise plans – to do this you have to cancel your subscription and create a new one. This is a real pain with all the set-up, and if you’ve really committed to storing your documents in the cloud, you’ve got to move them too! Combine this with the fact that E1 doesn’t contain office web apps, and you’ve got a relatively confusing decision!
In Summary
Before I get into this I have to say that I am a Microsoft fan – I develop using visual studio, I love the office suite and think outlook is great. That’s not to say I think everything Microsoft is doing is great (the mobile phone stuff is clearly behind the market), but I am in general a fan! So it’s no surprise that I like a lot of what Microsoft is doing with Office 365:
·         Hosted exchange is great – giving a top level email server, in a simple(ish) way for a great price
·         Lync online is ok but isn’t widely adopted which really limits its usefulness
·         SharePoint team sites can be really useful, but can take some getting used to
·         SharePoint internet site can be a good way to get internet presence, although it might be relatively difficult to find a web designer/developer who works with SharePoint.
·         Office web apps is decent enough, but it doesn’t replace desktop software
On the down side I really don’t like the way the plans work right now. Microsoft says that its done like this to help you only choose what you want – but it doesn’t feel like that. I think a much more simple, progressive plan system (where each one contains everything the previous on did) would have worked better, or even better than that a base plan where you can choose your bolt-ons (e.g. Exchange base plan at £4pm, office web apps £2pm, office pro plus £4pm) – or something like that!
However, this is a good step from big corporation, and it certainly opens up a couple of new(ish) opportunities for us IT pro’s (maybe a future blog entry!!). If you can make the most of £4pm, and have hosted exchange, SharePoint, office web apps and an internet presence web site then you’re doing pretty well!!
As always, I welcome your comments and feedback!!
Matt

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