Office 365 Took Me Back to the Future

I am definitely a big supporter of Google Apps for Education. There are no ifs,ans, or buts about it. However, when I took a new job in China I promised myself, as well as the school, I would focus on solutions that were 100% legal and, when possible, payable with local currency.

Aside from supporting Google Apps, I am more of a supporter of cloud computing and collaborative networks. This was the spirit which powered the original concept of the internet, and although it died for awhile, it has now come back. Working with servers that can be virtually deployed and expanded in minutes if amazing. Each one the same, with all standards and security set and ready to go.

So here I am, in the land of the Anti-Google. My search, as you know from previous posts, was exhaustive for collaborative groupware. I thought that we were going to have to license and host our own system, but I was wrong. A chance meeting with Microsoft on the eve of making a purchase changed the direction we were going. They let us know the free tier for Office 365 for Education was available in China.

I was excited, because it was a product I knew enough about to know it would meet our needs and allow us to use a variety of interconnected web applications. So, the process began. The first step was to find a school, similar to ours, using Office 365 for Education here in China. Microsoft had told us the data center was actually in China. We needed to test the speed, features, and look for limitations.Luckily we found a school, and the assessment began.

Using Office 365 this last week reminded me of the first time I really started liking Google Apps. This is a positive point, because my actual initial Office 365 experience was awful. The first thing that occurred to me was that the Skydrive Pro was actually just Sharepoint. This was annoying because I actually like the Skydrive interface. Also, the un-user-friendly features of Sharepoint are right in the face of all the users.  My overall dislike of Sharepoint in an educational environment still has not changed, but at least there are now ways to avoid some of the Sharepoint specific issues.

Overall, feature for feature, Office 365 is still lagging behind. There is still an obvious focus to keep users on the desktop. Some options required a shared item to be downloaded, worked-on, and then re-uploaded. For example, moving a file straight from email to Skydrive Pro for editing is not always possible. The collaboration tools are there but slow and not as fluid and flexible as Google Apps. The menu system is a copy of the desktop based software, and that seems odd to me considering the various interfaces which are proven and being used all over internet.

If I wanted to be critical, I would be here all day. Instead I will say this, if you are already paying for MS Office Licensing, and you can afford it (and the upcoming rise in prices), then Office 365 is not that bad. You can move to a more collaborative philosophy leveraging its features without too much time spent training on a new system.

I forgot to mention, Office 365 is not really free. There are various levels of the Office 365 package. If you want to have desktop software for the users, then you will be paying a per user fee. It is not the same as Google Apps, so keep this in mind. The normal model is to use the free tier, tier 2, for students and tier 3, the cheapest paid tier, for teachers and staff. This means the students will have to acquire their own desktop software if they need it.

The licensing game can get complex. Anyone on Office 365 should really be either 1-1 devices with students or heading there. There is no need to pay licensing for teachers, staff, and shared hardware. Savings will come only if you are not paying for licensing for shared student equipment.

The overall experience of Office 365 left me feeling as I did many years ago when I first started experimenting with Google Apps. I had to keep my desktop software, but sometimes, I could do something cool with Google Apps. Now of course, if I had Google Apps, I would dump my paid desktop software and use something free or cheap for specific desktop processes.

At first I felt nostalgia, but eventually just some nausea from the time travel. Oh well, how does it go…?
If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with ~ Stephen Stills  via Billy Preston.

Tony DePrato

3 thoughts on “Office 365 Took Me Back to the Future”

  1. Let’s not forget that Microsoft has an Office 365 app for the iPad too! There reluctance to let go and have two separate products is hurting MS. They need to make it a full featured cloud platform without the need for the desktop apps. They seem to be dragging their feet with this.

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