I’ve previously reviewed Google Apps and as we (the business I work for) decided not to use it, but instead have moved to Office 365, I thought it might be time to give that a review as well (as there seems to be little input from actual business users).
We’ve been running our business on Office 365 for several months having signed up not long after it launched (we had completed a trial first). We were previously with Intermedia for hosted Exchange email/calendars and Sharepoint for our intranet site, but they were more expensive and we also felt Office 365 offered a better experience (user administration on Intermedia was very slow and clunky).
I’ll try and keep the run-through similar to the Google Apps review for easy comparison.
Reminder of Requirements
We have a head office and a number of branches. The branches only have one Office user, who only uses email and calendaring with Outlook, which is the only part of Office they have installed.
At head office the use is much greater with everyone using Outlook email and calendars, shared documents on Sharepoint and use of many of the Office applications, using some of their power features.
We were happy with the Exchange/Outlook combination but our existing provider were not looking they they would offer the integrated experience of Office 365, they were more expensive and their support was slow and unresponsive when we talked to them about upgrading our accounts (as Exchange 2010 users were paying less that we were stuck on 2007).
Email and Calendars (Exchange)
We’ve been Outlook/Exchange users for both email and calendar management for some time. At some point it was based on-site, but before I joined the company it was moved to a hosted platform, so there was no really big change for us, just the need to update the relevant server locations. We also had to upgrade from Outlook 2003 on some of our machines as Exchange 2010 (which is what Office 365 runs) only supports 2007 and above.
The users didn’t notice much of a difference and carried on as before. Migration was easy, we just exported each user’s data, created new profiles and imported the data files, this then synced with the server. The only issue was with some users having mailboxes in the several gigabyte range and it therefore took some time to upload.
Everyone was happy with this combination before and continues to be. I’ve noticed the web version (OWA, not to be confused with Office Web Apps) is better, offering greater support for other browsers for one thing.
The only niggle relates to the password expiry notification. By default, passwords expire after 90 days (more below) and when it expires Outlook refuses to connect, but the only notification — tucked away in the status bar — just says it is disconnected, no mention of password expired, which makes it hard for our users to understand there’s a problem, usually they only notice when they haven’t received an email for a day or so.
Documents (Office Web Apps)
Our situation is unusual in that while a number of our users have a full copy of Office, most don’t have any Office applications installed (and a few have only Outlook) which makes sharing files interesting and has previously meant viewers or some OpenOffice.org derivative.
With the option to use cloud-based Office Web Apps on certain accounts I was hoping we would be able to share, work on, review and produce documents more easily across those users who had previous not really had access to Office applications.
My thinking was something akin to SkyDrive, the consumer version of Office Web Apps, which is a logical step from local storage in design and layout and seems to work fairly well.
In Office 365, however, OWA is hidden behind Sharepoint. Now, I’ve never really been a big fan of Sharepoint, so it had a hill to climb, but whereas I was expecting a user documents folder similar to SkyDrive, you don’t get that (something horrible but user specific is tucked away under the My Site link from the dropdown exposed when you click your username top-right but it’s just a bin though).
Otherwise you’re limited to Shared Documents libraries which are clunky, only let you (easily) create Word documents and not any other type, don’t seem to support older XLS formatted spreadsheets (which SkyDrive does) and is very slow to navigate let alone organise.
I would like to see a separate area much like SkyDrive for users to create, edit and manage files and folders and one of the options for files created there will be top copy or share a file with a Shared Library in Sharepoint.
Sharing documents is the typical Sharepoint nightmare. For our users, they have no control except for those tucked away in their own site. So you’d have to setup special folders or document libraries (or sub-sites) to handle the different sharing options. Why not just right-click, select share and then pick the users/groups? Done. Easy, simple, much more control, but no.
Another point of annoyance is printing. In SkyDrive it opens the document as a web page so you can print from within your browser, in Office 365 (i.e. Sharepoint) it converts it to a PDF and forces you to download it. Which means our users click Print, get a warning bar in IE about downloading a file, have to click to clear that, but then nothing happens, so they go back and try again, this time the file downloads and opens in the local PDF reader. It’s a painful process.
Then you come to PDFs. There’s no option to just open them, it just straight downloads them. Apparently this is a security feature in Sharepoint, which you can disable in your own installations (possibly not advisable) but you can’t in Office 365. They’re our documents, we put them there, why are we suddenly afraid of them, just open them so we can view/print them!
Downloading a file, again, a simple process, you can do it, but for some reason the option is tucked away on the Send To sub-menu (and the dropdown menu for each file can take a long time even to display). That’s enough to confuse some of our users (and doesn’t really make much sense). Again, not so on SkyDrive.
For those of us with full versions of Office 2010 installed we have the benefit of integration, the option to open a file in our local copy of each application. Unfortunately, this is very hit and miss, sometimes sitting and thinking for a long time before coming back to say it couldn’t find the file, only for the next time you try it to work perfectly. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when it works and when not.
Talking of local integration, let’s say you don’t have Office installed locally, there’s no option to open a file without using the OWA viewer, so if you have other local apps that could open the file (a viewer, OpenOffice, etc) the only way is to download the file.
So while I was hoping OWA would offer a better way for our users to interact with Office files it has failed and, in some cases, actually made it worse (printing, for example). The short answer seems to be simply port SkyDrive over so at least those people paying for OWA have as good an experience as those who get it for free.
As I’ve said, I’ve never really been a fan, it’s always been slow, clunky and extremely complicated to administer and nothing seems to have changed in the latest version.
The fact that they refer to it as ‘Team Site’ doesn’t really help either, what does that mean? Just call it Company Intranet.
There’s also the option to use it for your public website in Office 365 and the page load times are excruciatingly slow, so we don’t and will not be doing so anytime soon.
Because of these problems, our intranet isn’t the resource it could be or as heavily used as it should be.
Instant Messaging (Lync)
We never really used an instant messaging client previously, with some of us using Skype from time to time, but it was one of the benefits we saw in the move and some of us now use it, though only really for chat and file transfer, we haven’t begun to use the calling and video conferencing functionality though.
It’s something with a lot of potential, but you need a user base who familiar using such things and comfortable with it and we simply don’t have that.
The only really problem was getting the strange SRV DNS records setup to allow it to work properly, are these strictly necessary or could something else be used?
As I said, the administration side of Office 365 is better than what we had before, but that’s not to say it’s perfect.
I’ve already mentioned the password expiry is set to 90 days, with no option to change or override this (unless linked to your local AD), a simply option to set the number of days would allow more flexibility and control.
Another thing you can’t change is password strength. The default isn’t bad, but for companies who want to control those sort of rules there are no options.
Another bugbear is the fact that only administrators can reset passwords and they can’t set a password, all they can do is have a random one assigned, so the user has to login and change it. It may be secure, but it also adds overhead to an administrator’s time. We’d like to allow our users to reset their own passwords and certainly to be able to put in a password rather than have one generated for us.
In terms of payments, each license is on a 12-month contract, paid monthly. I’d actually like to see that dropped to a 30-day rolling contract, so you can cancel at any time (or just switch off auto-renew) and just pay to the end of the month (or better still, charged by the day so if you cancel a license on the 2nd you don’t pay for the rest of the month).
Likewise we’d like more flexibility in upgrading and downgrading accounts. At the moment, if you want to change a user’s license, you have to buy the new one, apply it to the user and then contact support to cancel the other accounts. Why not just let me cancel it myself, or let me convert one license into another? I realise this causes all sort of billing issues, but it’s hardly rocket science to sort out. The fact that there are some many levels is confusing too, I think they could be simplified.
Outlook and user administration is largely simple and straightforward, except when it comes to shared mailboxes and forwarders which seem to be overly hard to create. In fact, the only way to create a forwarder I could see was the create a distribution group. Why not just allow me to create an email address and tell it who to forward to? Shared mailboxes are even more fun.
From a user perspective, when they login online they’re presented with a largely useless home page. Allowing them to either default straight to Outlook or Team Site or embed gadgets with things like their last 10 emails, the Lync web client, various libraries or links or even personal information would make this a whole lot more useful.
Another problem for users is the random timeouts on accessing services via a web browser. Security again would be the reason, but most of our users don’t want to enter their password each day never mind several times a day to access our intranet or their email.
I’ve focused on the bad points above, but overall our experience has been positive. Outlook and Exchange work very well, uptime has been good and the support team, when required, have been fast, efficient and competent.
My biggest gripes are around Sharepoint and Office Web Apps. The former is as bad as ever and the latter just seems criminally wasted and a pale comparison when you look at the slick design of SkyDrive.
I’m not sure how much our browser choice affects the services, but using XP on the majority of our machines means IE8 only.
Would I recommend it? Well, if you want to switch to hosted Exchange then go for it, if Exchange is all you want then it’s great. If you want to use it as a way to buy full copies of Office monthly instead of a lump sum as with most other licenses, then again, a good idea (assuming you want Exchange). If you’re hoping to rely on it for an intranet or your company website or if you hope Office Web Apps will give your users a simple, cheap way to create, open and edit Office documents, then no, steer clear for now.