Microsoft Launches Office 365, SMBs Tout Productivity & Mobility

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“To compete, SMBs need an edge,” contended Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, at an Office 365 launch event which revolved around how SMBs are starting to use the online editions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync for productivity and mobility features that make them look and feel more like big businesses.

After Ballmer touted the benefits of Microsoft’s office cloud for SMBs like architectural firm Perkins Eastman and office furniture company ESL, Microsoft trotted out other beta users of the business apps to talk to the press about why they’re moving to Office 365.

In a series of arranged and ad-hoc meetings with TechnologyGuide/TechTarget at the posh New York City bash, largely satsfied SMBs spoke of their hopes that Office 365 will raise the productivity of their IT (information technology) staff, make it cheaper to supply end users with up-to-date software, give better app support to remote employees, and ultimately allow collaborative features like videoconferencing and shared whiteboarding to be widely available from smartphones.

“It’s just not a [good] competitive strategy for an SMB to try to provide the best Microsoft Exchange administration in the world to its customers,” said John Betz, director of Microsoft Online Services, in an interview at the event on Tuesday of this week. Subscription-based pricing for Office 365 ranges from $2 to $27 per user/per month, depending on package, according to Betz. 

True to Betz’s words, customers like Hendrick Automotive Group and New Belgium Brewing both predicted that they’ll be able to move IT people away from Microsoft Exchange admin duties and put them to work on projects closely related to their “core businesses” instead.

Fuller collaboration through smartphones will take a while

Collaboration from multi-platform smartphones to notebook and desktop PCs attached to the Office 365 cloud will take longer to happen, although steps are already underway.

Even with Office 365’s predecessor, BPOS, Microsoft has provided an Outlook Mobile client, along with ActiveSync technology for access through iPhones and Android OS phones, Betz noted.

In a demo at the New York City event, Betz helped to show how users can work collaboratively on an online document from iPhones and Windows Phone 7 phones, via iOS and WP7 implementations of the OneNote app. Microsoft also demoed WP7’s “Office Hub” for collaborating online. The iOS edition of OneNote also works on iPads, Betz told me.

In another meeting, Jay S. Perlstein, a Microsoft business development manager, said that partners like InterCall have created bridge technology that allows users to dial in by voice to Lync-enabled conference calls.

Betz said plans for Lync smartphone clients — envisioned as giving a “richer collaborative experience” that includes varying levels of data communications, according to OS — are also in the works.

Representatives of AppRiver, a Microsoft partner now providing ActiveSync smartphone services, informed me that they’re readying services that will use the upcoming Lync mobile client.

Aside from AppRiver and InterCall, major reseller CDW will also sell Office 365 services to SMBs.

Productivity around IT resources could be here now

As for saving on IT resources, Hendrick Automotive Group is already migrating away from its earlier on premises Microsoft Exchange server to Office 365’s cloud-based Exchange Online, with plans to drop an on premises SharePoint server in favor of SharePoint online and an on premises Office Communications Server (OCS) for Lync Online by the end of next year.

Hendrick operates about 75 retail car dealerships throughout the US. Of the 13 people in its IT department, three are now dedicated to managing the inhouse Exchange, SharePoint and OCS servers, said Robert Taylor, Hendrick’s director of IT.

“It’s vital to our success to have Microsoft manage these services. We can then focus more on apps that are unique in our industry and core to our business,” he told me.

For similar reasons, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing is also getting ready to deploy Exchange Online, although decisions have yet to be made about making the switch from inhouse SharePoint and OCS servers.

Of the beer company’s nine IT workers, three are now managing Microsoft servers and two are on the help desk, while only three work on core business apps.

Start-up firm Travelers Haven is using Office 365 for different reasons. The Denver, CO-based company’s highly mobile employees help groups of professionals find and relocate to temporary housing quarters. Examples include insurance pros undertaking an investigation and medical teams quickly convening to treat disaster victims.

“When we’re on the road, we can start right up, get access to our documents, and collaborate,” said Elia Wallen, company president, in a meeting at the event. Wallen particularly likes Lync’s abilities for videoconferencing and instant messaging (IM). Lync’s IM is better than texting, because the IMs are archived for future reference, according to the start-up chief.

“There’s no more inefficiency around, ‘Would you send me that information again?’ or ‘How do I do that again?'” he illustrated.

Wallen said Travelers Haven also plans to use the Lync mobile client when it becomes available, for IMing from smartphones.

However, levels of interest in collaborating from smartphones seem to vary according to the amount of worker mobility.

Taylor said the smartphone collaboration piece isn’t a key draw for Hendrick, since the company’s car salespeople work mostly on-site.

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