Living with Office 365: Here's what I love - and hate
Office 365, Microsoft's new subscription-based version of Office, is about what you’d expect from a Microsoft product: some elegant features, a few baffling implementations, a couple technical hiccups, and a host of really neat features primarily for seriously heavy Office users.
Microsoft has several versions of Office 365. I've been using Office 365 Home Premium, the main consumer version, on my Sony Vaio touchscreen running Windows 8, since late January. Last week, I also began testing Office 365 Enterprise, the highest-end version for businesses, on a Samsung Smart PC Pro 700T -- a laptop with a detachable screen that works like a tablet -- which Microsoft loaned me.
The core productivity apps -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote -- look and feel pretty much the same in Home Premium and Enterprise. Outlook is a bit different on each version, and at work you'll have access to Lync and SharePoint.
But the most interesting part of Office 365 -- the part that makes it most stand out from past versions of Office -- is its link to online services. With On Demand, for the first time Microsoft is letting you run the latest Office programs from a computer that doesn't have them installed. That means when you're traveling, you can borrow a friend's computer or a machine in a business center, sign in to your Office 365 account, and within a couple minutes start using the apps.
Office 365 also has tighter integration with SkyDrive, Microsoft's online storage service, than previous versions of Office, making it easier to access your documents remotely.
The idea is that you can be working on a document in the office, go home and eat dinner, then log into Office 365 from your home computer and pick up exactly where you left off. If you're traveling, SkyDrive combined with On Demand means you can leave work and pick up from a new machine and get access to all your documents in an interface that looks identical to your primary machine.
It's a compelling vision. But does it actually work? Here's what I found out.
The On Demand apps are so similar to the fully installed versions of the software that I planned to ask Microsoft why people shouldn’t just use it instead of installing the full software. But I soon found out.
To check it out, I uninstalled Office 365 from my computer, and tried using On Demand by logging in from both my pro and consumer accounts.
The biggest problems with On Demand are:
- Knowing it exists
- Figuring out how to find it
- Needing to be online, with many associated Microsoft services operating properly.
If you’re a longtime Office user, you’re accustomed to downloading the software to your machine and that’s that. There is no reference to On Demand in the animation that plays when you first download Office 365. (Instead, the animation references Office Web Apps, a very stripped-down way to access Office files from a browser.)
I had to search for a Q and A on Microsoft’s site to figure out that you find On Demand by logging into your account on Office.com. Most people wouldn’t stumble on that since most people wouldn't imagine that you'd find anything associated with your account at Office.com.
If you log in with corporate credentials, you find On Demand in possibly the least likely place – in the SkyDrive tab, under a heading in the left hand column. Why it's under the SkyDrive tab, I can't imagine.
On the Home Premium version, when you log into Office.com, you’re presented with a list of recent documents. Under that is a heading that says “Office On Demand.” If you click on one of the icons below it for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, or Publisher, it starts “streaming” the app.
The first time you try On Demand on a machine, you’ll wait a few minutes, as it streams to your machine before you can start using an app. Subsequent times it’s just a few seconds for the app to launch.
When On Demand works, it’s great. There are no feature differences between the On Demand apps and the locally installed apps.
But it didn't always work as advertised. One time, I could only use documents in the corresponding Web App, a browser-based version of Word and Excel that looks and feels like a stripped down web app (hence, the name). I used a troubleshooting guide to run through a number of scenarios but still couldn't seem to get On Demand to launch.
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