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What the heck is Office 365?

Office 365 is live. Read the fluff here, or watch videos all day of Microsoft SMB customers. But what exactly is Office 365? Let us hove to established tradition for “WTF is this thing” stories and start with what it is NOT:

Office 365 is not Microsoft Office software. Not Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Outlook. If you do not have those things, signing up for Office 365 will not get them for you (you can buy them at the same time you sign up, however).

It is not compatible with Microsoft Office 2003. You need to be on Office 2007 or better, because Office 365 needs Office “Open” XML (OOXML) to do most of the neato-burrito online stuff. The Microsoft how-to’s (LGT to the guide for enterprise) say it will pretty much work with MSO07 or MSO10, but you will need MSO10 Professional Plus to use all the Office 365 features.

It is not an Exchange Server, a Communications (now Lync) Server or SharePoint server. It is also not like anything you would consider a hosted Exchange server, nor is it an online email/app suite like Gmail or Zoho. It is not an browser-based online service.

It is not cross platform. This is for Windows and Internet Explorer. It lives on ActiveX and Silverlight.

It is not anything whatsoever to do with mobile devices or mobile apps, except for delivering Exchange mail and using SharePoint Mobile (one of those things is very useful, the other one is SharePoint Mobile)

It is not Google Docs.

It is definitely not iCloud.

What it is:

Office 365 is a replacement for your Exchange and Sharepoint servers that comes as a monthly subscription service from Microsoft, and it is an add-on software pack to your Office installation. It also runs Communications Server (now Lync) as a service, but I’m not sure anyone’s ever actually used Lync. It’s not like hosted versions of these products, nor is it like running them yourself- Microsoft does 100% of the admin and you get zero access except to an identity and management layer for adding and managing users and mailboxes to some extent. This is the cloud computing part of Office 365. It is better known as BPOS.

Inboxes are 25 GB and message size limits are 25 MB, the signal benefit here is that you will only intensely annoy the recipients of your 25 MB emails and no longer your IT admin as well. Admins everywhere are chuckling in anticipated schadenfreude at the thought of Microsoft operators trying to unstick Exchange queues full of 25 MB attachments going to 25 GB mailboxes instead of them.

Office 365 lets you send email from and not; it supposedly will do single sign-on if you let it sync with your AD. It requires Active Directory Federation Services 2.0, so Windows 2003 Server support is out the window for that feature.

It DOES NOT integrate any further than syncing users, addresses and the Global Address List. You CANNOT UNSYNC your AD, and it is in no way shape or form a tool for managing ADs. You’ll still do all user management from your domain server and you’ll manage Office 365 users on Office 365, unless you migrate completely to Office 365 and stop using local directory services (because all you use your ADs for is email, RIGHT?) Microsoft says you can do a standard cut-over or partial migration if you want to stick your entire email infrastructure in the Microsoft cloud.

The add-on part is a download called the “Office desktop setup.” Run it on each machine that will use Office 365 after installing Office 2007 or 2010. Once you’ve done that and set up your users, they can use Office WebApps to edit and share .doc files from their PC in a browser. Apparently it’s not too hot on mobile devices, though.

That’s what Office 365 is, in sum. Is it a Gmail/Google Apps killer? Not at any entry point that is not equal to “free,” it’s not. Its also clearly not set up to be used the same way. Where’s SkyDrive, by the way? Where’s the cross-browser support?

Is it pretty cool and does neat stuff, like real-time collabo on documents and websites with multiple editors (no more email chains of these: “pls rvw chnges and snd back asap thx attached” hooray!) Sure. and like it or lump it, the world pretty much runs on Office.

But will it upheave the Office desktop landscape? Not even a little bit.