Microsoft launched Office 365 to the world this week, but the company’s cloud product development is by no means complete.
Users can expect some functionality, including the ability to make phone calls from Lync Online to cell phones and landlines, to be added in the coming months. But for other tools, such as dedicated applications for the iPhone and Android, and a more complete browser-based experience for Office Web Apps, well, just keep waiting.
Network World discussed Microsoft’s cloud roadmap with Eron Kelly, who runs product management for Office 365, at Microsoft’s launch event Tuesday. While Microsoft says it will continually improve its new cloud service, the timeline for certain features remains hazy at best. Here’s a look at what Kelly had to say on a number of topics.
What, no mobile apps for non-Windows phones?
Office 365 encompasses many pieces of cloud-based software: Exchange, SharePoint, the Lync unified communications suite, and the Office Web Apps including Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote.
But mobile access to Office is limited unless you’re the proud owner of a Windows Phone 7 device. Any smartphone, of course, can connect to email and calendars through Exchange ActiveSync and VPN software. But Microsoft only offers the full Office experience, including editing of Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents, to Windows Phone users.
There is a OneNote app available for the iPhone. But Microsoft hasn’t developed any other Office apps for the iPhone or Android devices. This relegates users of the most popular systems to their mobile browsers.
Testing Office Web Apps on an iPhone, I was able to open and edit a OneNote document in the OneNote app, but not in the iPhone browser. In Safari, I was able to view a Microsoft Word document, but not edit it. Editing requires downloading the document and opening it in an app. While Microsoft doesn’t supply any apps capable of editing Word documents on iPhones and Androids, third-party tools such as Quickoffice are able to do so, often for a fee.
Kelly says it was easier for Microsoft to build full Office functionality into Windows phones because the Office and mobile product teams can work closely together. He didn’t rule out bringing a Word, PowerPoint and Excel application to iPhones and Androids, but didn’t commit to doing so, either.
“We’ve done it with the OneNote on the iPhone,” Kelly says. “That indicates direction on the kinds of investments we’re working on moving forward.”
“The experience on the Office hub [in Windows Phone 7] is better, it’s cleaner,” Kelly notes. “Because there is a local app, you can download the document and edit it, manipulate it more.”
Even in a desktop browser on a Windows computer, Office Web Apps lacks auto-save functionality and the ability to have multiple users simultaneously edit Word and PowerPoint documents. Gartner analyst Matt Cain chalks this up to Microsoft intentionally limiting the capabilities of the browser versions of Office Web Apps to avoid cutting into revenue for Office software licenses.
Kelly says that’s not the case.
“It’s more just the evolution of where the products are,” he said. “If I were to look across the main applications of Office Web Apps, the most mature is Outlook. Outlook Web App has been around for a long time. It’s got a really broad set of features that really closely emulate what happens in the Outlook client and that’s because we’ve been working on it longer. If you look at Word, PowerPoint and Excel [in the browser] they’re just not as mature.”
There may never be full parity between Office Web Apps and the classic version of Office, however. “We don’t want to fully replicate the entire experience in the browser because… you can do a lot more when you have that local computing resource and client,” he says.
The limits of Lync Online
Lync Server, the packaged software that businesses can install within their own networks, is designed to be a full replacement for PBX phone systems. But Lync Online, one of the key components of Office 365, isn’t yet on the same level.
Lync Online today allows phone calls between two people using Lync clients, but not from a Lync client to a regular cell phone or landline phone number. Building services in a multi-tenant cloud environment is more complicated than developing software customers deploy themselves, Kelly says. There are also regulatory issues and partnerships with telecom companies that must be struck.
Full phone capabilities for Lync Online will “be very dependent on our telco partnerships,” and will progress faster in some regions than others, Kelly explains. That process will happen over the next 12 months, but Lync Online still won’t have full parity with Lync Server.
“It’ll be close but not complete,” Kelly says. “Lync Server still has a full PBX replacement set of features we won’t have yet in Lync Online. But we’ll continue to evolve and add those and close the gap.”
To be fair, Lync Online today provides instant messaging, video conferencing and other collaboration features. But Kelly says Lync in the cloud isn’t as sophisticated as Exchange in the cloud, which has been offered for several years.
“Exchange is the most mature, Lync is next,” Kelly says. “I’d say SharePoint is the least mature.”
While Office 365 does let customers access SharePoint servers hosted in Microsoft’s cloud data centers, the ability to customize SharePoint Online will be limited compared to SharePoint servers that customers manage themselves.
Moving Office 365 out of beta
The Office 365 beta ended this week, with Microsoft moving beta customers to production code. While Kelly says tweaks were made to improve availability and the user interface, not all of the problems noticed by customers during the beta have been solved.
Some beta testers complained about trouble importing contacts into global address lists and requirements to use PowerShell scripting to complete tasks that should be simple.
“Some things we’re able to do in PowerShell; we’ll make improvements there,” Kelly said. “As we recognize there are certain tasks that are more common to less sophisticated users, we’ll add them to the UX. That’s the learning experience we’ll go through. We see the community as a great place to get that input.”
While beta customers are upgraded automatically, the process is a little more complicated for users who have in-house versions of Microsoft software or use the previous versions of Exchange and SharePoint Online, called the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS).
Microsoft has changed the terms of its Enterprise Agreement to give volume-licensing customers the right to shift some or all of their users to Office 365, Kelly said, with a one-year grace period in which users making the transition may access both the on-premises and cloud software. Even after the one year is up, customers can use a hybrid environment, with some users on Office 365 and others using packaged software.
The transition will require moving email accounts, SharePoint data and other stuff from the customer’s data center to the cloud.
There are also tools to help BPOS users shift to Office 365, but Microsoft is not allowing all BPOS customers to upgrade immediately. Instead, the transition will happen in phases. On-premises BlackBerry servers also won’t be able to connect to Office 365 at launch.
“Transition to Office 365 will be available to existing BPOS customers soon after availability of Office 365,” Microsoft says in an FAQ. “Microsoft will work with all existing BPOS customers to determine the best time for the customer’s business to make the transition.”