Microsoft Office 365 Brings Cloud Email, Calendar, and Documents to Small Businesses for a Low Price

Last month, Microsoft finally unveiled its new cloud-based enterprise productivity and communications suite, Office 365. With more and more small and mid-sized businesses embracing the cloud-based potential of Google Apps, it’s not particularly surprising that Ballmer & the boys decided to fire their own volley. What is surprising, though, is just how robust, well-executed, and affordable the new Office 365 manages to be; for small businesses feeling encumbered by their current software systems, Office 365 might be the solution.

Office 365 is offered in three different packages–Office 365 for enterprise, Office 365 for professionals and small businesses, and Office 365 for education—but we’ll just be focusing on the Small Business package, since that’s what SBGM is all about. The Small Business package is a pay-as-you-go subscription model, which costs $6 per user, per month. The only downside to this affordable package is that Redmond doesn’t seem to be providing much technical support at this tier, with “free online community support” being the most help you can expect for Office 365.

But what, exactly, does Office 365 offer? For starters, all registered users will have access to Microsoft Exchange Online, which integrates email, calendar, and contact services into a cloud-based system that provides up to 25GB of storage. Exchange Online also includes Exchange Activesync, which keeps users’ mobile devices in lockstep with their office-based desktops.

Sharepoint Online is another component of Office 365, and this one takes direct aim at Google Apps, as Sharepoint works through your browser (or directly through MS Office) to provide collaborative document creation and editing, messaging, and web publishing amongst users. If Sharepoint seems too alien for your employees, the Office 365 package also includes “Office Web Apps,” which offers slightly scaled back versions of the Microsoft Office suite programs in a browser-based format. But it’s Lync Online that really ups the ante over Google Apps, as Lync provides application sharing, whiteboards, file transfer, instant messaging, video/audio chatting, and a whole host of other features. Both Sharepoint and Lync are accessible through dedicated clients, and through the traditional Microsoft Office suite.

Beyond the features outlined above, Microsoft is really banking on two features of Office 365 to distinguish it from Google Apps; first, Office 365 seamlessly integrates with your desktop Office software, so employees should be able to take advantage of the new features and functionality without extensive training, or a lengthy learning curve. Secondly, Microsoft is promising “business-class security” and reliability, with its Exchange service protected from viruses and malware by Microsoft Forefront, and the company offering a “99.9% uptime guarantee.”

Office 365 offers far more features and functionality than can be covered in a single post, so it’s probably worth checking out the service for yourself before making any decisions. Microsoft has promised that Office 365 will be supported on a 90-day upgrade schedule, so it’s likely that the already-robust service will grow and improve even further over the coming months.