Why Office 365 is far more important than Windows 8
Posted on 31 Oct 2012 at 15:36

Jon Honeyball says Microsoft’s decision to switch to a cloud subscription model makes the new version of Office the most revolutionary yet.

New versions of Office tend to leave me cold nowadays. But then, I’m old enough to remember the days before Office had been forged out of a rather unholy alliance between Excel, Word and PowerPoint.
For those with very long memories, discussions about whether applications should have buttons that were 14 x 14 or 16 x 16 pixels ought to bring back nightmares. Since those pioneering days, Office has become bigger, more bloated and arguably more difficult to use for power users.
In the biggest change in the history of Office – actually since the original programs came together to create Office – Microsoft is going to offer Office on a rental model
I’m sure that some of the simpler and mid-level features are easier to use for beginners and intermediate users, but in latter years the whole edifice has taken on the appearance of an ageing Hollywood starlet wearing an embarrassing quantity of make-up, especially with the arrival of the ribbon bar in Office 2007. I’m still not comfortable with it, nor with the improved version in Office 2010, even after years of trying to like it. I guess I’m just too wedded to the old Office 2003 ways of doing things. I’ll gloss over the mess that was Office 2008 for Mac and accept that Office 2011 does a pretty good job, despite not supporting the new features of OS X 10.7 (such as Auto Save), let alone the new 10.8 that’s now shipping.
So why am I actually quite interested in the new version of Office for Windows? Well, first because it will be available on Windows RT – the ARM version of Windows 8 for touch-based tablets. To take a suite of heavyweight applications such as Office and ensure the code is clean enough to port to a different processor is no mean feat, and something that Microsoft didn’t manage in the 1990s with previous versions of Office.
Remember that we never did see Alpha, MIPS or PowerPC versions of Office back then; it was strictly 32-bit Intel Windows only. The arrival of 64-bit Office a while ago showed that the team was prepared to do the work necessary to clean up the situation for a non-Intel and non-32-bit future, and with the forthcoming RT version, it will be delivering on that commitment.
However, that isn’t the big issue. No, the issue is how Office will be made available to many users, especially to those in the home environment. Finally, Microsoft has brought its application virtualisation technology to Office, and this is a really big deal, since it means that Office applications can be delivered to customers through streaming online.
App virtualisation isn’t new – Microsoft’s technology was brought in several years ago and then made part of the server family, but getting it to work really effectively requires considerable skill and understanding of just what these apps are doing when you install them on a machine.
It certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, and there’s much necessary reading to be done – Microsoft’s guide to application virtualisation is only the starting point (after that, I suggest you read the The Definitive Guide to Delivering Microsoft Office with App-V.
However, all this hassle will be unnecessary with the new version of Office, since Microsoft has done the work for you, and is now going to package it for the end user. In the biggest change in the history of Office – actually since the original programs came together to create Office – Microsoft is going to offer Office on a rental model.
This is revolutionary. This reduces Windows to merely providing the OS bootstrap and base hardware services, with Office, email and so forth all being pulled in from the web. However, they won’t arrive only as web applications (although you’ll receive those Office Web Apps too), but as real native applications that are streamed, updated and looked after from the cloud. All of them are coupled to proper email storage on Exchange Server, and shared document storage through SkyDrive.

Just take a moment to let that sink in. You’ll log into an Office 365 account on a PC and your data will just appear in front of you, and your Office applications will be there too. In full-power versions, streamed from the cloud. Startup time for this technology is fast – a minute or so, depending on line speed, for a first install. After that, the code is on your machine anyway, so it’s instant.

How about roaming your account? Well, Microsoft says that each user will receive five installation points; in other words, you can install your data footprint on five different devices at one time.

Most of the Microsoft partners I’ve ever met frankly deserved to be cut out of the channel loop and sunk in a far wetter, saltier one – namely, the English Channel

Removal is easy, clean and painless – because the applications are wrapped in the virtualisation technology, there’s no intermingling or sharing of anything on the host machine, so you could have a new version of Excel running streamed from the internet alongside an older version of Excel with no clashes. Removal is only a case of revoking the licence and deleting the virtualisation files, with no need to start manually unpicking a whole heap of Registry nonsense.

I’ve been using Office 365 in my office for months now, and I feel obliged to keep repeating that it’s working extremely well. I can’t remember any outage lasting longer than a minute or two, and that was probably due to internet-routeing flaps anyway, and nothing to do with Microsoft’s data centres. I don’t have to worry about backup, upgrading, or any of the everyday worries you’re landed with when you run your own Exchange Server.

At the end of the day, I receive all of the goodness, power and capability with none of the unpleasantness. This is a purely cloud-hosted implementation, of course, and you can set up the Enterprise versions to allow a mixed on-site and cloud implementation if you want, which would be especially useful while making the transition from on-site to off-site storage.

Even as things currently stand, however, my advice to any small business running Small Business Server is simple: get out of Exchange Server as soon as possible and onto Office 365. With the announcement that this goodness is coming to the home market, too, we’re looking at an inflection point in the history of Microsoft, something far more important than Windows 8.

Of course, each account will be tied to a person, and in their eyes that will tie the account to their own personal email address, which means that a household with four users will need four accounts. Each of the five installation point licences for an account will be tied to the same user login; this means that you’ll be able to visit a friend’s house, log into Office 365 and then stream the latest Office applications down onto their machine if you want to do so (and you’d only need to do that if the cloud-based Office Web Apps weren’t strong enough for your current requirements). Once you’d done your work, you’d pull the locally cached streamed apps directly off your friend’s machine and decrease your licence count by one.

Of course, having five install points finally answers the old question of “how many machines can I install this software on?” in a clear fashion – for too long it’s appeared to be shrouded in controversy and confusion, despite Microsoft’s rules being quite clear. Under this new regime, you can install on five physical devices, so that should be simple enough to understand.

This move to a rental system is only part of a complete reframing of the business model that Microsoft uses. It means that all the revenue from Office sales will go directly into Microsoft’s own coffers, leaving the retail channel redundant and impotent (by channel, I’m referring to those warehouse box-shifters who seem to continually redefine the term “helpful expertise” in a downwards direction).

One other announcement that was made at the recent Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference is worth noting, too – partners that sell Office 365 to businesses will now be able to bill the customer directly for the service, rather than have this go straight back to Redmond. This is an important point, as shifting to a cloud services model could so easily mean cutting out those partners altogether.

Allow me one catty comment here: most of the Microsoft partners I’ve ever met frankly deserved to be cut out of the channel loop and sunk in a far wetter, saltier one – namely, the English Channel. However, it’s clear that Microsoft believes it still needs its partner model in order to succeed, and including them in the new Office 365 business model is a vital step in that direction.

So this new version of Office is one that I’m really looking forward to, because it provides new capabilities that are interesting to the market, and represents a monumental shake-up of Microsoft’s previous sales model.

Just think about those licences for full-box products that are sitting on your shelves collecting dust. Okay, you might well have used them as some sort of upgrade in the past, but with the move of Office to what is effectively a rental model, the transition from boxed product to online service will be complete.

Read more: Why Office 365 is far more important than Windows 8 | Enterprise | Real World Computing | PC Pro http://www.pcpro.co.uk/realworld/377881/why-office-365-is-far-more-important-than-windows-8/2#ixzz2B5nZLA1P