Guest post from Tony Sutcliffe, IT Manager at Bott Ltd. First published on Tony’s blog Tales of the IT helpdesk on 13 June.

I’m going to write about the new Office365 product for which I have been testing the beta version. If you want to take a look at the beta for yourselves, then sign up here:

Essentially, the concept is simple; this is an online product that provides the functionality of the normal Microsoft Office package. It’s run through a browser window, and the key thing is that it can be accessed from any device at anytime. All you need is a standard Windows Live ID in order to get access to the relevant portal.

The front page is quite straight forward and very “clean” and uncluttered; it gives a brief overview of what tasks need to be done and how to access the key components. There is also a link to support, the community forum, and information on how to perform key tasks.

The Outlook function is accessed from a menu item and is based upon Outlook 2010; even if you are using an earlier version, you will probably be able to work out how to do things. I tried this on an iPhone and there is a slight difference in the appearance as it uses the Outlook Web App (OWA). For those advanced Outlook users, there are a couple of functions missing; the public folders option is one item. However, I found it really easy to use, and I suspect that most others would have no trouble switching to this product from an existing version of Outlook.

There is also the calendar, contact list and tasks list functions as well. We use this on our normal Outlook function, so it might be something that we could use to good effect. For the contacts, we would need to find a way to separate out some of the entries as otherwise we would end up with massive longs lists making it harder for people to find what they need.

The Office365 product includes SharePoint Online; which is exactly what it sounds like. It seems to be based upon the SharePoint Foundation product, and offers the same kind of functionality. Although I had a few issues with the provisioning at first, an email to the Support Centre fixed that. I then found it really simple to set-up and use.

I’m actually a great believer in SharePoint; I think that it has a lot of functionality that would help fix a lot of business issues and provide a mechanism for resolving several key communication problems. The only downside is that it sometimes seems very difficult to get the users to understand that they can take control of many of their tasks; they seem to have a very fixed view that only IT staff can do these things.

Office365 also offers Lync which is the new instant messaging client; I thought it looked very slick and had a number of very useful additions compared to earlier products. Again this is something that I think we don’t make enough use of, and following a couple of tests, there are some key users that really like the product, but unfortunately there are many more that simply do not want to even try to use it.

Lync can also be used for audio or video conferencing; I did one very quick test and it worked well, but that was only between 2 users within our network. It would have been useful to test it against a couple more users for a slightly larger conference call; we may still do that another time as we still have over 140 days left on our 6 month beta licence.

The other main feature are the Web Apps for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote; very similar to the 2010 versions of the software and most people will pick them up very quickly. I’m not a great fan of the ribbon interface, but I suppose that I’ve become used to using it; and the Web Apps use the same feature, so it make sense to get used to it now.

There are a number of arguments about the use of cloud computing; that’s going to be a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that having tested Office 365, I really like it and most other users seem to find it very straight forward. We don’t know the price yet*, but I have seen a couple of suggestions for the cost, and I think that it could be very affordable.

Office 365 is a really good product even though it is just the beta version so far; it’s one that I’ll be keeping an eye on over the next few months for sure.

* Ed's note: prices for Office 365 start at £4 per user per month for the small business P1 plan. For medium and larger organisations with 25+ users, prices start from £6.50 per user per month. The beta E3 plan costs from £15.75 per user per month. Compare plans and prices here.

And another Ed's note: We're running an online presentation on 30 June at 10am. Register now and learn more about Office 365.