Don't be fooled: Office 365 is basically useless on mobile

The essentially Windows-only cloud service has no place in a mobile world and little place on Mac OS X or Linux

The hype starts today, so watch out. Microsoft formally launched the long-promised Office 365 set of cloud services for using Microsoft Office, Exchange, Lync (for voice and video communications), and SharePoint in the cloud, available in a variety of subscription options. Even before the formal release today, Microsoft had been marketing Office 365 via emails advertising its capabilities. If you got that ad, you no doubt saw how iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, and Android devices (and Macs) were all noted as compatible in the sales pitch for Exchange capabilities. You then saw in the rest of the promo Microsoft touting the rest of Office 365's features' mobile compatibility.

Here's the catch: The Office 365 ad doesn't specifically claim that non-Windows platforms are supported beyond Exchange; it instead switches to the generic word "mobile" in the descriptions of its other capabilities so that you infer that it does. Don't be fooled.

[ Discover the best office apps for the iPad, for the iPhone, and for Android smartphones and tablets in InfoWorld's Test Center comparisons. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

The truth is that the only part of Office 365 that is thoroughly compatible with a non-Windows platform is Exchange -- and that's been working for years on those other platforms. iOS, Android (via third-party software on smartphones and natively on tablets), BlackBerry (via BES), WebOS, Mac OS X, and Linux (via third-party software) all have mail clients that work with Exchange, and those clients don't care whether Exchange is locally hosted, provided by a third party, or provided via Microsoft in the guise of Office 365. So Office 365 adds nothing over traditional on-premise or hosted Exchange when it comes to email, calendar, and contacts support for mobile platforms (or for Macs and Linux PCs).

Outside of Exchange, Office 365 is largely limited to desktop Windows users, though some SharePoint features work with the little-adopted Windows Phone 7 platform. InfoWorld's Test Center has reviewed Office 365 in the context of a desktop Windows user, but for the rest of us -- especially the 99 percent of mobile users who don't use the Windows Phone platform -- Office 365 is irrelevant because it is unusable.

Although Microsoft touts Web-based editing of Office documents through Office 365 (using SharePoint as the file repository), the truth is that its Web-based editing capabilities (essentially, its old Office Web Apps service) are primitive, like Google's competing Google Docs, and that Microsoft's model assumes -- in fact, strongly encourages -- that you do your editing locally on Office 2010 on your Windows PC, even though the files are stored online. That all but tethers Office 365 to Windows PCs.

I tested Office 365's document editing and SharePoint facilities on Apple iOS 4.3, Google Android (both 2.2 for smartphones and 3.1 for tablets), RIM BlackBerry OS 6, and Google Chrome OS 12.0.742 on mobile devices, and on Mac OS X 10.6.7 Snow Leopard and Ubuntu 11.04 Linux. The results:

Editing files via the browser
As the point of comparison, Office 365 accessed via IE8 on Windows 7 lets you view, edit, and format Word documents in the browser, as well as view, edit, format, and work with objects in PowerPoint documents. It cannot view or edit Excel documents; you must download spreadsheets for viewing and/or editing in an other app.

In this day and age of cloud computing, which by definition means having heterogeneous clients, it's shocking that Office 365's Web apps rely on ActiveX and Silverlight controls for many of their capabilties. That proprietary dependence is why any browser other than a Microsoft one has at best limited access to the documents.

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