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: Exchange and Lync

Exchange Online will no doubt be one of the most attractive components of Office 365, particularly for small and midsized businesses, and it functions much as expected. Each user is given an inbox that integrates with Outlook 2010 and the Outlook Web Client, complete with an Internet email address that maps to a custom subdomain on the Office 365 servers.

In crafting the administration screens for Exchange Online, Microsoft has walked a fine line between simplicity and power. Admins can manage user accounts and organize them into distribution groups, create mail rules, generate audit reports, set up devices for use with ActiveSync, and draft a Bad Words policy to screen email, if desired. But your control of these features is somewhat limited, and many admins may find themselves wishing for more. For example, we're told the Exchange Online server incorporates "industry-leading anti-virus and anti-spam solutions," but if so, they're black boxes, with no controls to allow admins to tune or monitor them.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Some UI issues aside, the Office 365 Beta shows real promise for what matters to admins -- strong controls for a cloud service. See "Office 365: Expect huge improvements for admins." ]

Another key selling point of Office 365 is Lync Online, a hosted version of Microsoft's revamped Communications Server. We experienced some provisioning problems at first, but once we were up and running, Lync allowed us to see presence and contact information for authors of collaborative documents, enhancing the workgroup experience considerably.

Lync also allowed us to launch IM, voice, and video chat sessions with our contacts, as well as share our screens for presentation. It's a powerful addition to the suite and an impressive unified communications solution -- although it may be a little ahead of the curve for some small businesses.

In all, Office 365 brings a lot of technology to the table, and Microsoft's promise to eliminate some of the drudgework of IT administration is compelling. We just hope that as it moves beyond this early beta period, Microsoft manages to smooth out some of the navigation issues and gives the overall suite a more consistent user experience. With an offering this complex, however, that may be a tall order.

The administration screens for Exchange Online are easy to digest, and they give admins more control (including the ability to create mail rules, above) than Microsoft's previous Exchange Online offering. Administering SharePoint Online (below) is more daunting. We'd like to see more robust templates to get small businesses up and running, and perhaps some wizards to create new teams, file directories, and workspaces.
This article, " First look: Office 365 beta shows promise but lacks polish ," was originally published at . Follow the latest developments in cloud computing , Windows , Microsoft Office , and applications at
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