Office 365: Your burning questions, answered

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Microsoft this morning is rolling out its updated Office 365 suite for businesses and launching new pricing tiers.

There are a lot of changes in the way that Office 365 works, and in typical fashion Microsoft is using a very confusing naming plan for the various products.

So we put together a FAQ list to help you sort it all out...

What’s the difference between the old Office 365 and the new?

The old Office 365 was only available to businesses. It included Microsoft-hosted versions of Exchange (email), SharePoint (collaboration), and Lync (real-time communications). Some editions also included a subscription-based version of the Office 2010 apps.

The new version has several big differences:

  • Microsoft is now selling Office 365 in three tiers: for small businesses, medium sized business, and enterprises. It's the first time Office 365 has a product aimed at medium sized businesses -- which Microsoft defines as 10 to 250 employees.
  • Office 365 is now also available to individual users in the Home Premium version. 
  • Almost every edition of Office 365 includes a subscription-based version of the Office 2013 apps, which themselves have lots of new features. Two of the most interesting are tighter integration with SkyDrive online storage, and On Demand, which lets you sign in and use Office on computers that don't have it installed.
  • Rather than charging on a per-seat basis, as it traditionally has with desktop versions of Office, Microsoft sells Office 365 on a per-user basis. For editions where the apps are included, each user is allowed five installs. That means that if your employer signs up for Office 365 with apps, you'll be allowed to download the Office suite on five PCs or Macs.

Sadly, there’s no naming difference between the old Office 365 and the new, making it confusing to research the new product. When looking for information on Microsoft’s sites, note the updated Office 365 logo. Generally, I’ve found that pages with the new, red square logo describe the new Office 365. Pages with the yellow and orange clover leaf logo refer to the old version of Office 365. However, this method of distinction isn’t totally foolproof as some information about the old version applies to the new.

What’s the difference between Office 365 and Office 2013?

The difference is in how you pay for it. Most times, when Microsoft refers to Office 2013, it’s talking about the one-time perpetual license, and when it refers to Office 365, it’s describing the subscription. However, when you download Office 365, the icons that appear on your computer for the various applications are called 2013, (e.g. Word 2013).

Should I buy my own subscription to Office 365 Home Premium, or wait for my workplace to get Office 365 and allow me to download a copy on my home PC?

It depends on how anxious you are to try the new features. Enterprises typically are slow to deploy the latest software, so there’s a chance your employer might not adopt Office 365 for ages. Plus, businesses have the ability to restrict user downloads, meaning yours could block you from downloading it to your home machine -- although Microsoft makes it hard to restrict so there's a good chance your employer will allow it.

It's probably most worthwhile to buy your own subscription to Office 365 Home Premium if you have multiple machines in your household that you’d like to use Office on. Home Premium also includes 20 GB of SkyDrive storage and 60 Skype minutes per month.

If my employer lets me download Office 365 on my home computer, will I be able to keep it when I leave the company?

No -- unless your employer is willing to buck Microsoft's licensing rules just to be nice. IT admins can remotely reduce your Office 365 installation to the free, so-called "reduced functionality" mode of Office, which lets you view files but not create them.

Should I expect a huge app store?

Office 365 supports third party apps. So far, there are only around 200 apps spread across all of the products.

Microsoft is making it easy for developers to build the apps for Office 365 with commonly used web development tools and is allowing app developers to charge for their apps. Since sales of new Microsoft software, particularly to enterprises, tends to start out slow, it might take a while for developers to take an interest in developing for Office. Also, Microsoft is only opening up the new tools to developers that target businesses today, so developers will need some time to actually build their apps and release them.

What's the difference between using the real apps and On Demand?

One of the biggest changes to Office 365 is that it lets you run Office apps "On Demand" on computers that don't have the software.

It’s the same app in both cases, so the features are the same. However, On Demand relies heavily on backend Microsoft services and so if some are down, you might have trouble using it. Also, not all Office apps are available in an On Demand form -- only Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Publisher are. Outlook and OneNote aren’t.

In addition, since On Demand is virtualized, it’s hidden from other apps. That means that if you try to open a Word document from email, for instance, your email service won’t be able to detect that you have On Demand Word.

Can I pull my personal email into Office 365 at work?

That depends on your IT admin. IT managers can determine what email accounts can be pulled into your corporate Outlook app and whether you can pull your corporate account into your home Outlook app.

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