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Office 365: Ballmer bigs up collaboration and the Cloud - CRM still to come

29th Jun 2011
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Farewell BPOS, hello Office 365 – where Office gets collaborative in the Cloud, according to Microsoft at the formal launch of the firm's Cloud business productivity suite in London and New York this week.

Microsoft reckons that some 200,000 people have tested the beta version of Office 365 since it was released in November last year with many of them boasting of a 50% reduction in IT costs as a result.

At the launch in New York, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO and seeming Cloud evangelist in chief, was keen to stake a claim for this being the latest Cloud offering from the firm, rather than a catch-up effort against Google: "It goes all the way back to 2005 that Microsoft introduced our first Cloud service when Energizer, the battery company, became our first business customer using Office Cloud Services. It's now six years since we started down the journey to Office-based Cloud services, and yet, we're more optimistic about what can be done and the scenarios that can be affected than ever before."

Ballmer talked up the collaborative nature of the new offering: “We believe that effective collaboration is a lot more than good group dynamics; it's a matter of instant access to relevant information, of ideas flowing freely and of the right people taking the right action at the right time. And it's absolutely critical — collaboration is — to business growth. That's why we believe that the best collaboration technology has to be available to all businesses, from massive global enterprises with thousands of workers to feisty startups with just a couple of employees."

Ballmer cited DuPont, Hyatt Hotels, Starbucks and Volvo as among the companies who are "excited" about the offering but the focus of his pitch was firmly on the SME audience, companies such as the Wise Group in Glasgow: "It's a job placement firm that expects to cut travel costs and reduce carbon emissions by 30% after they retire the 60 servers they think that they will save. Allen, who is the CIO there, told me he plans to turn their empty server room into a Jacuzzi, which sounded pretty good to me."

Allen at Wise Group was also trotted out to demonstrate what Ballmer called the 'ah-ha!' moment when people realise the potential of a Cloud-based offering: "He had talked about Office 365, he had shown it to his people, they were implementing, they were moving forward and then he was actually on the train going from Glasgow to London. And all of a sudden, he found himself taking a call on his laptop over Lync, participating in a Web conference, putting it on hold, looking up the notes for the meeting, taking a call from somebody else, all over the 3G card that was built into the laptop. And it was at that moment that he said, "Aha, I get it. I've got the stuff that the other guy's got; I've got everything that I need. All of my information, all my files, all of the work and productivity I'd ever want to have available through my computer and what lives out there in the Office 365 services."

For individuals or teams?

The formal launch of Office 365 will of course only ramp up the competitive tensions between Microsoft and arch-rival Google. Shan Sinha, Google Apps Product Manager got Google's defence in first on the eve of the Microsoft launch with a scathing attack on the new offering which sought to pitch Microsoft as the old guard in a changing world: "Technology inevitably gets more complicated as it gets older. Upgrading platforms and adding features results in systems that are increasingly difficult to manage and complex to use. At times like these, it's worth considering a clean-slate: an approach based on entirely modern technologies, designed for today’s world."

While Ballmer was keen to play up the collaboration angle of Office 365, Sinha claimed that the Microsoft offering was in fact for individuals not teams: "Most of us no longer spend our days working on our own. We work with others: creating, collaborating, sharing. With Apps you can work with multiple people in the same document. There’s no need to worry about whether or not it’s possible to share a spreadsheet, or co-edit a presentation. You can see people type in real time, and share a file in just two clicks. Discussions bring people into your documents for rich conversations. You don’t need to buy additional licenses to work with others, or hope people outside your company have upgraded to the same software. If you have a Google account, you can collaborate.”

Most of all, Shinha questioned Microsoft's interpretation of Cloud Computing: "Office 365 is about the desktop. Apps is about the web. You can't just take legacy, desktop software, move some of it to a data center and call it "Cloud." Apps was born for the web and we've been serving hundreds of millions of users for years. ”

Sinha also argued that Office 365 is inextricably linked to the traditional Microsoft world which “reduces your flexibility. Our applications are designed to work well on any device, on any operating system. Desktop, laptop, Chromebook, tablet, smartphone. Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, Blackberry, iOS, Windows Mobile. Edit on the go. Share from anywhere. Start on your computer, move to your tablet, finish on your phone. When the web is the platform, it just works."

Sinha also played the vendor lock in card when declaring: "We also don’t lock you in. By design, we make it as easy as possible for you to move off of Google Apps if you want. We have a dedicated team of engineers whose sole goal is to help you get your data in and out of our products for free. We believe that the way to keep you long term is to continue to innovate and make our products better so that you choose to stay with us."

CRM Online

What isn't in dispute, however, is that those waiting for Dynamics CRM Online to be added to the Office 365 suite will have to wait a little longer. Last year Microsoft officials announced their intention to bring CRM Online into the Office 365 fold, but speaking to Mary Jo Foley over on ZDNet, senior director of product management for Microsoft Online Services and Office 365 Eron Kelly, revealed that this will be by year's end.

Foley notes that some of Microsoft's partners are already integrating CRM Online and some of the other hosted apps that are part of BPOS and Office 365, but that Microsoft still plans to add CRM Online to the base suite of hosted applications - "either in some of the existing packages or in new unnamed packages."

Other details regarding CRM Online's addition to the Office 365 suite in terms of licensing and pricing still remain vague at this point.

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