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Microsoft Office 365 beta: Potentially useful, occasionally frustrating

Preston Gralla | Jan. 25, 2011
The suite of cloud-based business applications offers definite advantagesif the rough edges can be smoothed out.

Administrative e-mail tools
Even though Exchange 365 is hosted in the cloud, rather than on your company's server, you still get a full suite of administrative tools. You can easily add new Outlook users, either singly or in bulk (via .CSV files), determine whether users get administrative rights, and so on.

There are also tools for migrating in-boxes from a company's server-based version of Exchange to the Office 365 cloud-based version. These tools won't work for people who have been using Outlook in concert with POP3-based mail, though. There is a migration tool for IMAP accounts, although that requires a bit of extra work.

You'll also find a variety of more sophisticated tools as wellfor example, you can set group permissions for performing tasks such as allowing people to search across multiple mailboxes. In short, you get the kind of administrative tools you expect with Exchange, even though you don't host Exchange yourself.

Unfortunately, this is also one of many examples of the poor overall integration in the Office 365 beta. When you're on the pages for managing Exchange, there's no navigation to any other part of Office 365essentially you're in a silo that appears to be a dead end. You have to navigate back to Outlook, and from there use site-wide navigation. This is a problem that appears time and again throughout the suite.

Team Sites
Office 365 also offers a hosted version of SharePoint, which allows you to build team sites where everyone in your organisation can collaborate on documents and share a common document library.

Creating and designing a new team site is surprisingly easy. You choose a design, theme color and so on, and then add elements such as images, tables and document libraries. Adding documents to a team site is exceptionally easy: Click an "Add Document" button, choose the file you want to upload, and your work is done.

Office 365 gives you a great deal of control over your team sites, far more than most organisations will ever use. You can, for example, set up groups with specific permissions, and then assign people to those groups. You can customise document permissions to an extremely fine degreefor example, giving some people read-only access, others full control, others only the ability to contribute but not make edits, and so on. You control who can access the site and who can't.

In short, you get all the usual SharePoint tools, including the ability to share documents with those outside your organisation. Team sites also include version control functionality, so documents can be checked into and out of libraries, to ensure that people can't overwrite one another's work.


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