buchachon - Fotolia

Office 365 at your service

An overview of Microsoft’s subscription-based software offering

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Dutch startup wants to revolutionise online food shopping

Microsoft Office used to be a simple thing. You’d buy a box of software and install Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint – and that was it.

That all changed with the launch of Office 365, however – a shift to a subscription model with a monthly fee and a host of cloud services, bundling what had been Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite of hosted Office server products with the familiar desktop Office apps.

That was six years ago, in June 2011. Over the past few years, the service has moved from individually hosted servers to a multi-tenant environment, with the addition of new and more widely available services on a mix of consumer and business plans.

Like the rest of Microsoft’s cloud services, Office 365 is updated monthly, with additional regular updates for its client software. It has also expanded beyond Windows, with improved MacOS client software and a mobile suite that works on iOS and Android.

Monthly subscription

Business services start at £6 a month for a purely cloud-hosted service, whereby web apps are used in place of the familiar desktop tools.

Most businesses are likely to opt for the £17.60 E3 service, however, which adds the ProPlus release of Office 2016, as well as tools to improve the security and regulatory compliance of email.

Microsoft offers a 5/5/5 option for users with software licences, allowing software installations on five phones, five tablets and five PCs or Macs. At the top end of the scale is the $30.80 E5, which adds analytics tools and voice services.

Other options include small business and government plans, as well as support for education users.

A portal to productivity

At the heart of Office 365 is the Office Portal, a web-hosted service that lets administrators manage users, and users manage the software installations and the services they’ve been assigned. It’s a continually evolving platform, adding new services and subscription options frequently, as well as removing others.

By clicking the grid icon in the top left of the Office 365 portal, users will see an ever-growing list of tools and services, from the Yammer enterprise social network to low-code programming tools such as PowerApps and Flow. Microsoft’s increased reach of tools and services builds on two key technologies: the Microsoft Graph and the Common Data Model.

The Microsoft Graph is perhaps the most obvious of these, a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that work with the Office 365 cloud services, letting users make a mix of queries against personal data and the data associated with a work group, or even the entire organisation. It’s the logical extension of the older Office programming model, extending it to work at scale rather than just against local documents and data.

Where the Microsoft Graph gets interesting is in its ability to not just query against individual elements, but to deliver insights about the data an organisation generates. Much of this surfaces in Delve, a tool designed to help users understand what documents their colleagues are working on, and to help them find the right expertise for a project. It’s the type of thing that used to be promised by knowledge management systems, but instead is being delivered by a combination of machine learning and search.

Delve is also at the heart of a new feature in the old warhorse that is Outlook. My Analytics shows how a user has been working and who they’ve been working with, as well as providing tools to manage their calendar more effectively. With Microsoft positioning Office 365 as a productivity tool, it’s an interesting addition to Outlook’s scheduling tool, especially with the option of booking out time to focus on specific projects.

The underlying Microsoft Graph can be accessed via a set of RESTful APIs, so users can quickly add it to their own applications. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described the original set of Office 365 APIs as one of the company’s most valuable assets, and their expansion has been one of the more interesting features of Office 365’s growth.

Recent expansions have added support for new document types and services, as well as complex queries that can help explore how a business is using documents – as well as finding out key business metrics such as the best time to have meetings or understanding how the business structure has evolved.

It’s easy to envision a future for the Microsoft Graph that adds LinkedIn’s data. Bringing Office 365 and LinkedIn together could allow users to not just work with their own data, but also information about their business contacts and clients.

Combining that with the related Dynamics 365 customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform, and their Common Data Model will make it possible to also query across data structures that encompass key business objects, from calls to products. Some elements of the Dynamics platform are included in Office 365, such as Power BI analytics tools and Flow simple process automation services.

Apps everywhere

Microsoft has not been afraid to try out new ideas via Office 365. Its Sway storytelling app was available for Office 365 subscribers on iOS long before a Windows 10 version arrived. It’s an interesting tool, albeit one that’s perhaps yet to find a niche as an alternative to PowerPoint for interactive content.

Like OneNote, it has become popular with educational users, but there’s a lot of scope for it as a tool for delivering training or high-level summary reports, roles that have traditionally been handled by unwieldy PowerPoint presentations. Other new tools include quick and easy project management with Planner, video services with Stream, and a new To Do service that’s intended to replace Wunderlist.

Outside of the mainstream tooling, there have been a series of experiments that have included short form messaging tools, task managers and simple publishing applications.

Read more about Office 365 licensing

By offering tooling outside its expected Windows base, Microsoft is able to extend its mobile reach and to understand the needs of a wider selection of users. This includes web-based tools such as StaffHub for workers who don’t have business PCs but still need to manage shifts and access common mailboxes and calendars.

The web lets Office 365 reach beyond its traditional user base, across platforms and different device types. Microsoft is doing a lot with web user interfaces for its Office 365 services, so if users can’t find an application, they’ll be able to use it through a browser. That also allows users to pick up any computer, anywhere, and use their account and associated services.

For users looking for collaboration, there are various options. OneDrive for Business builds on Office 365’s SharePoint tooling to provide versioned cloud file storage, with support for the desktop and web Office tools’ coworking features.

Yammer is an enterprise social network, with a Facebook-like news feed for notifications from the team, and from documents. One of the latest members of the Office 365 family, Teams, takes a different approach to collaboration, with a chat-like way of working that’s similar to Slack, but with links to the rest of Office 365, as well as to collaboration tools from third parties, such as Atlassian’s Trello.

Securing and managing

As Office 365 uses Azure Active Directory to handle sign-in, users are able to add extra layers of security to their account with tools such as Microsoft Authenticator, using push, SMS and voice authentication.

Security is also handled by cloud-hosted document encryption tools, which can help ensure regulatory compliance as well as protecting sensitive information. Like the people and document-centric Microsoft Graph, the security tools that sit behind Office 365 have their own graph, and use this to reduce the risk of stolen accounts and more complex threats.

Mobile users will find Office 365 tooling on Windows 10 Mobile, iOS and Android. It’s now possible, thanks to a well-designed mobile version of Outlook and the Office 365-focused Arrow launcher, to have a Microsoft-skinned Android device, with most of the core Android communications and productivity functions handled by Office tooling – including a specialised Excel keyboard for working with mobile spreadsheets.

It has allowed Microsoft’s US stores to make up for the demise of the Windows Phone by selling a version of Samsung’s S8 running Office apps.

Then there’s the new Microsoft 365 offering, targeted at both SMEs and larger enterprises. Bringing together Office 365, the Enterprise Mobility and Security suite, and a selection of Windows 10 licences, it’s very much a modern business IT platform in a metaphorical box. Bringing many of Microsoft’s enterprise cloud services together makes a lot of sense, combining productivity, systems management and security in a single subscription.

Microsoft 365 is the logical next step for Office 365, going from productivity to nearly everything you need to run a business. With a range of different plans to suit consumers and businesses of all sizes and types, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and now Microsoft 365 look set to be the model for how Microsoft sells software for the foreseeable future.

Read more on Microsoft Windows software