by Vangie Beal

Office 365 Mixes New Features, Familiar Feel and Bridge to the Cloud

Mar 27, 20138 mins
Cloud ComputingMicrosoft OfficeOffice Suites

The new Office 365 and its enterprise-grade cloud services are a good option for a business of any size. We look at the Windows 8 experience, the desktop-cloud connection and which of the new features will most appeal to both end-users and IT admins.

Microsoft Office 365 takes a cue from earlier editions of Office, keeping its comfortable, familiar user interface while adding the features that make it easier and faster for IT to set up and run Office on networked computers, in the cloud or on-premises.

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Add SharePoint 2013, Exchange 2013 and Lync 2013 integration to the familiar Office applications—Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, Access and Publisher—and you have a suite that’s a good fit for most business and enterprise users. Here’s a look at what deploying Office 365 will mean for end users and IT departments.

Windows Mobile, Desktop Offer Similar User Experience

Before getting started with the new Office applications, it’s important to know how Office 365 is integrated on all Windows 8 environments. For your mobile workforce, Office on a Windows 8 tablet is not much different than using Office on a desktop; it’s basically the desktop experience on a smaller screen with the touch interface. Those running Windows 8 (or even Windows 7) on a laptop or PC will have a similar experience to users running Windows 8 mobile devices.

Office 365 Start screen
Office 365 on a Windows 8 tablet provides the same user experience for those on a desktop PC.

Using a Samsung ATIV Smart PC, Office 365 worked well with touch, pen or keyboard and mouse. However, I had occasional problems with the Windows touch interface; at times I simply couldn’t touch the correct point to click-to-close an application, for example, and the pen didn’t always hit the mark either. It’s not a constant issue, but when it happens, it’s frustrating.

The good news is that you get Office 365 for one device and can use it on all your other devices. This makes it easy to work from home, the office or on the go. Recreating the same user experience across all devices is what we like to see for business use—it means less time wasted in trying to figure out how to use applications on different devices.

How Office 365 Can Bridge Desktop-Cloud Gap

Just as Microsoft tries to make it easy for Office 365 Enterprise users to move between desktop and mobile environments, the vendor aims to do the same for companies that are bridging the gap between on-premises and cloud deployments. IT can run any app in the cloud or locally based on policy, access or per-user basis. For example, critical office apps can be local but your file share can be online. Or you could stream applications and keep the documents behind your firewall.

Case Study: Red Cross Offers Office 365 to its Units Worldwide to Improve Communications

Another major Office 365 update is click-to-run deployment. It’s basically an “Office on Demand” feature that lets you run all Office applications as you need them by streaming them over the Internet. If youre not ready to upgrade all Office apps from older versions, Microsoft gives you the option to download or run the individual apps when you are ready.

Office 2013 Administration Easy With Access Control, DLP

Microsoft Office 365 Enterprise uses role-based access control to make sure the right users have access to certain information and data loss prevention capabilities to prevent users from mistakenly sending sensitive information to unauthorized people. Built-in (and extensible) DLP policies are based on regulatory standards such as HIPAA and PCI.

There’s also a new eDiscovery Center to identify, hold and analyze your organization’s Exchange, SharePoint and Lync data in one place. This means you don’t need to manage a separate data store.

All this means that IT is in full control over how files, software and data moves in (and out) of the enterprise. You can set up, manage and run the new Office 365 in the manner that best suits your business.

What’s New in Office 365: Outlook and Word

Microsoft Office 365 Enterprise combines the latest Office suite with productivity services and compliance features that include unified e-discovery, data loss prevention policies and access control for IT. While each application is worthy of its own review, for now here are some highlights and new features in the enterprise versions of the four apps you’re most likely to use: Outlook, Word, Excel and Lync.

Overall, Outlook has a cleaner and more streamlined interface. Content is front and center, and it’s easy to maneuver with the touch interface. Something as simple as being able to hide the Ribbon lends itself to improved usability on tablets and small devices.

Related: 10 Best Office 2013 Features, According to Microsoft

Outlook lets you embed applications, such as a Bing map app to a lunch invite, and enterprise security features (served by Microsoft Exchange) can limit access to those apps. In cases where sensitive data might be shared in an email, built-in policy tips warn users of actions that violate corporate policy. If users override the policy, the activity is audited, with a clear record stored.

Other interface and usability features of Outlook worth mentioning include site mailboxes to create a single folder, calendar and task lists for team projects and “Social Connectors” to view social streams from the people you’re in contact with. LinkedIn, Facebook and other social updates are incorporated automatically.

While there are no new enterprise-only features in Word, there are some changes to the application that will improve productivity. To start, the best feature is “Resume Reading.” Regardless of what device you last opened a Word document on, you can resume reading from any other device—all recent documents, settings and custom dictionaries follow your Office 365 account.

Tips: 10 Microsoft Word 2013 Headaches and How to Cure Them

Track Changes have also improved over previous versions. You can use the standard view, which is easier to follow, and trigger the full mark-up mode any time to expand comments and view change history. You can save documents on your desktop PC or online to access from anywhere at a later time or share with coworkers. Finally, collaboration and sharing is fully managed under corporate IT policy and across all apps as a SharePoint feature.

What’s New in Office 365: Excel and Lync

With some time logged in Excel you’ll soon discover the hidden gem: You don’t have to know a single thing about charts and tables to visualize your data. With a single click action, Excel will recommend the most suitable charts based on patterns in your data. For the enterprise, there’s PowerPivot, an Excel add-in that provides in-memory database technology to allow fast manipulation of large data sets, streamlined integration of data and the ability to share your analysis.

Office 365 Excel
New Excel features let you create charts and tables in a single click.

Other valuable timesaving features include “Quick Trend” for historical time-series data and “Timeline Slicer” for viewing data over different periods. In Excel 2013, Microsoft has made it easier to share a workbook online and to collaborate with coworkers or partners; simply send a link to your workbooks saved in the cloud.

Related: 13 Useful Add-ons for Microsoft Excel and Word 2013

Finally, Lync connects you to IM and lets you host or participate in online meetings via voice or high-definition video. Presence indicators help you see when coworkers are online (or busy) and these presence indicators will show in the Outlook Web app and SharePoint team sites as well.

Office 365 Lync
With Lync you can connect with coworkers via voice or HD video and share Office documents in a controlled presentation setting.

Lync supports common messaging platforms including Skype, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Google Talk. The new “Quick Lync” feature menu appears over any Lync contact and shows all available communication modes, based on the person’s presence indicator. You can start a session with a single click.

Like all Internet-based communications, your experience with the new Lync can be only as good as your network connection.

10 Office 365 Features You’ll Appreciate

The entire Office 365 suite is vast, and it’s nearly impossible to cover it all in one article. Based on my experience with Office 365 Enterprise, here’s a quick look at some of the best features enterprise users and admins will appreciate.

Top 5 Office 365 End User Features

  • Office Web Apps for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote let you work across multiple devices.
  • Recent documents, settings and custom dictionaries follow your Office 365 account.
  • The user experience is mirrored between desktop and mobile devices.
  • A cleaner interface that puts the focus on your content provides a good user experience on small devices.
  • Single-click Excel actions create clear data visualizations.

Top 5 Office 365 Administrator Features

  • IT can keep some users on-premises while others access services from the cloud. Companies can move to the cloud at their own pace and test different configurations before deploying.
  • Administrators can manage on-premises Office servers and Office 365 (as well as users on both) within a single interface.
  • IT centrally controls mobile device settings such as passwords and PINs and can remote wipe lost or stolen devices.
  • IT has complete control over client software updates, which take place in the background and are invisible to users.
  • Routine tasks are automated and fine-grained control over settings (via PowerShell support) is readily available.

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In a nutshell, Office 365 combines productivity software with enterprise-grade cloud services. It’s a viable option for any business of any size. (Microsoft’s Office 365 plans will help organizations choose among the small business, midsize business and enterprise versions.) Individual services are available for Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online. In its package options Microsoft also offers Kiosk plans for businesses with “deskless” workers.

Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been covering small business, electronic commerce and Internet technology for more than a decade. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.