First look: Office 365 beta shows promise but lacks polish

Microsoft's cloud productivity suite has big ambitions, but feels poorly integrated and may leave admins wanting more

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Office 365: SharePoint in the cloud

Unfortunately, the Web-based components of Office 365 are a mixed bag. Easy online collaboration via SharePoint Online is one of the more compelling features of the suite, but these features still feel half-baked. Users can simultaneously edit cloud-hosted documents created with Word and PowerPoint (but not Excel), yet changes made by other users show up only when you save your own version of the document, which feels more like traffic management than true collaboration. Alternatively, a user can "check out" a document, which blocks other users from editing it until it's checked back in.

Unlike Office Web Apps, which are reasonably browser-agnostic, Office 365 delivers various components as ActiveX controls, and it's not always easy to predict when and where those controls will be needed. If your browser doesn't support ActiveX, certain features will simply be grayed out, and it can be hard to tell whether that's due to a permissions problem, an as-yet-unimplemented feature, or because you need to try again using Internet Explorer.

Moreover, working from Microsoft's servers felt sluggish compared to a LAN, even over a fast Internet connection. Attempts to create, save, and update files were occasionally met with frustrating delays, making us long for a more traditional file server. Hopefully server performance will improve as the product leaves beta, but in general the Office applications don't feel as robust running on a Web-hosted workspace as on a local one.

Cohesion between its various components is where Office 365 Beta feels shakiest. The Office 365 home page carries a familiar Office 2010 look and feel, and Office Web Apps continue to emulate their desktop equivalents as closely as possible. However, SharePoint Online is an entirely different beast, resembling neither Office nor Windows. It's hard to see how these disparate components come together to form a single business solution.

Worse, it's difficult to navigate between modules of the suite. Once you move from the home page to the SharePoint Team Site, there are no obvious links to get you back to where you came from. In addition, the Back button is unreliable, so the process of exploring the suite becomes an unnecessarily tedious chore. Microsoft has a lot of work to do if it hopes to make the user experience of its hosted server software as readily accessible as Office 2010.

The integration between Office and SharePoint Online is impressive, but document collaboration still feels incomplete. SharePoint will alert you when others are editing a document (above), but won't show you their changes until you save (below).
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