25 June 2014

Microsoft Office 364: Almost a usable product.

At first I was chalking up all of the issues I was running into with Microsoft's cloud strategy as simple stupidity, but perhaps that has been Microsoft's strategy all along. Crazier ideas have come out of Redmond.

I have been working with a nice gentleman at CDW because some of my clients have the need for saving and sharing documents in a cloud environment while also having a nice intranet system where they can find all of their information. Because the default perspective is to no longer install software in a server room, my focus was on Office 365 with Microsoft hosting SharePoint. All I needed was a little test site to see if they would be able to edit the intranet themselves and get an idea of what it can and cannot do.

My background for this task in recent years has been using Google Apps. Saving and sharing documents for a company in Google's platform is relatively easy and setup can take only a few minutes. Heck, with Google Sites you can create a custom web site in less time than it takes Starbucks to make you a vanilla steamer. You can default to using Word, Excel and all of the Microsoft tools, but the problem with Google Apps is that the design is not as familiar and I have concerns about anything confidential being housed there. Most critically, it is not embedded into a locally installed Microsoft Office installation, and having all documents created in a web browser is not a step most people are ready to take.

Office 365 should be the answer - but I am not certain it is. Sure, you can create and edit Office documents better than Google Docs. No, the sharing capabilities are not quite as robust as the cloud in California, but it is pretty darn close. However, Microsoft seems to be trying to make it an almost usable product.

To start with, they still cannot get SharePoint working for me in the Office 365 test environment. I have spent an hour on tech calls with Microsoft trying to get the option to show up, but they have not figured it out yet. In a demo environment. Just to see the product. Seriously?

I installed SharePoint and configured it back in 2003, but that was a version from over a decade ago. Explaining this to the sales folks at Microsoft and wondering whether I could easily create a site myself for clients they told me "no" - that they would need to be involved as a paid consultant. Huh? A product in "The Cloud" that requires $200 per hour consultants to set up properly? Inquiries about documentation on how to do configuration were met with silence.

When I asked about pricing, I found it runs $12.50 per user per year for an account equivalent to Google Apps. Each have extra features from the other, but at least they are in the same price category - until you calculate space. Google Apps is unlimited and Office 365 caps me at 10 gigs plus .5gig per user on SharePoint without paying extra. To get 1tb of data, which is a pretty common amount for what exists on a file share, you would have to pay thousands more per year. Heck, even if Google was not giving unlimited space, they only charge $120 per year for a terabyte.

Okay, no problem. Maybe companies can leave the data on their file share. The old version of SharePoint could scan SMB folders to make them searchable on the web site and this could take care of that issue without paying through the nose for drive space. Except ... SharePoint within Office 365 does not support this. Or should I call it "Office 364" since Microsoft knocked out their cloud services for 9 business hours yesterday?

The comedy here is that I could solve all of these problems by just installing everything locally on Windows Servers, just like the old days. It would cost a fraction of the cloud offering, have all of the features available and it would likely even work after I installed it. The problem, of course, is that it would be tied to the office, just like the old days, too.

I will keep hammering at Office 365. I bet we will eventually get it working, and despite what I was told, I bet I can configure it myself, too. But, for some reason, I wonder if Microsoft would prefer everyone stick to tearing off the shrink-wrap from little cardboard boxes.