Office 365 blurs line between personal and corporate identities

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With Office 365, Microsoft is adopting consumerization trends – like sharing documents and apps across multiple devices and using personal accounts to access services at work -- that will make life easier for users. But both users and IT admins should think hard about the ways they use some of the new capabilities because of potential repercussions down the road.

Office 365 Home Premium becomes available today in 162 markets. For $100, consumers can run the app on five machines for a year. Microsoft is also offering a discounted price, $80, for students for a four-year subscription. Office 365 for businesses will become available on Feb. 27.

One of the new wrinkles for longtime Office users will be the concept of signing in -- to Office plus the integrated SkyDrive and app stores. Once users have signed in, they’ll see their name in the top right corner of all the apps.

There are some nice benefits to being signed in. For instance, when users close a document on one machine and open it on another, an icon appears in the right hand scroll bar making it easy to jump to the spot in the document that was on screen just before it was closed. And saving documents to SkyDrive, rather than a PC’s documents folder, offers peace of mind in case of hardware failures down the road and makes it convenient to share and collaborate on documents with others.

But signing into the services will require some thought from both users and IT admins.

During an Office 365 demo day for the press last week, some Microsoft execs were logged into Office 365 with their corporate, credentials, but logged into SkyDrive and the Office app store with their personal identities.

Moving corporate documents to personal online storage accounts is convenient, but will worry the same IT admins who worry about employees using Dropbox.

If workers are using consumer versions of Office 365, businesses “maybe need to train users on what types of files they can store there,” said Jeremy Chapman, a senior product manager at Microsoft.

For business users, admins will have some controls to set permissions. For instance, they can instruct Office to only save documents to SharePoint (using the confusingly named SkyDrive Pro client to connect), or to other on-premise storage, where admins have some control.

One analyst thinks these controls will be enough keep IT admins happy and workers out of trouble. “As long as they’re putting admin tools in place to enable admins to control or shut it off, managers can make good decisions about how much exposure they want,” said Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst at Nucleus Research. “You want people to be productive but not at the cost of corporate data.”

Office 365 also features an app store in each of the Office apps. In a demo, Microsoft director Richard Riley was signed into the app store with his personal account. That would let him download apps of his choice, using them with his corporate Office 365 files.

For business users, IT admins can turn off the public app store if they don’t want to give users that flexibility. But Microsoft is betting they won’t. “Over time, I’m convinced people will relish leaving this on. It will let people do their jobs quicker without calling IT because it’s self service,” Riley said.

Companies can also build their own app stores so that workers can choose just from approved apps. Some of the IT administration tools are available only by using Office combined with Exchange.

Having a personal version of Office tied to a corporate account could also create some surprises for users.

The top tier business version of Office 365 comes with multiple installs per user, so businesses may encourage workers to install it on home computers. This means employees don’t have to buy their own version of Office to work from home on their personal computer, including Macs or PCs. But if the employee leaves the company, IT admins can hit a kill switch that reduces the Office 365 installation to the free, so-called reduced functionality mode of Office. which lets the user view files but not create them. That's a shift from the old days, when employers had no way to enforce this restriction.

In a lot of ways, the new Office 365 borrows from the consumerization trend that has workers comfortable with using personal technology at work. It could make workers more productive and make working from multiple locations and devices easier. But it's a big shift in mindset that will require some education -- from Microsoft and IT admins alike.

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