The Good: Familiarity, features, lower costs

The biggest asset Office 365 has is its inherent familiarity. College students and businesspeople alike have been using Microsoft Office for years. Many of these people know the basic functions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and understand how the programs work together.

Arguably the second most important thing about Office is the feature set. Ever tried to use Google Apps documents to do serious spreadsheet or presentation work? It’s lacking, to say the least. If I’m pounding away with advanced macros and formulas, I want Excel. If I’m doing complicated presentation, I want PowerPoint. I’m sure plenty of managers and office drones feel the same way.

Another feather in Office 365’s cap is the ability to cut costs on servers and maintenance. If your company was planning to run Exchange and SharePoint servers anyway, this solution is much more economical than managing local servers running that software. Letting Microsoft handle the management means fewer IT hassles and a smaller IT staff.

The Bad: Menus, collaboration, pricing

The biggest problem I see after spending time with 365 is how many menus and screens you have to go through to do anything. If there’s one thing Google Apps does well, it’s simplifying and unifying the process of opening programs and documents. Office 365, however, makes you slog though menu after menu to get to things. It’s something you can get used to, but it’s doesn’t feel completely refined for its purpose yet.

Second, collaboration in Office 365 isn’t as seamless as I’d like. You can’t be inside the same document as your peers and see real-time changes as they occur. A faint grey marking on the page lets you know a change has been made, but it’s not as smart as Google’s alternative. Apps lets groups of people seamlessly edit documents together in real-time, and Google was quick to point this out the day before Office 365 launched.

While inter-business audio and video calling is possible through Lync, I’d love to see true VoIP calling integrated into the system too. However, I fully expect Skype calling to be integrated into the system after Microsoft’s acquisition of the Internet communications company is approved by antitrust regulators. So it’s possible we’ll see this included in less than a year.

Another thing I have a problem with is Office 365’s pricing. There are so many price options that small businesses and enterprises may have a hard time determining the best option for them. Small businesses have two options: $6 per user per month for access to Office Web Apps or $18 per user per month for Web Apps and rented full desktop versions of Office. But for businesses more than 25 people, the pricing ranges from $10 to $27 based on a set of options. It’s more complicated than it needs to be.

Next: Walkthrough and Final Verdict