By Adrian Booth, Communications Consultant at AB Communications

If like me, you think entering the cloud might be the next IT upgrade for your business, you’ll be looking at what’s out there in this increasingly busy market.

I’ve been looking at Microsoft Office 365, which offers a small business version called P1, aimed at professionals and small businesses with up to 25 employees (although it can scale to 50 if you find your company grows)
It was the starting price of just £4 per user per month that initially caught my interest. I am also encouraged that signing-up is on a monthly basis for the P1 version. Microsoft seems confident we’ll like it and don’t tie us to long contracts which can be off-putting for the curious. So I’m looking at what to expect from the Office 365 package, lifting the lid to see what’s waiting inside.

If you’re new to the idea of cloud computing,try the first in this series, Not just a silver lining, this cloud looks shiny all over! on Fresh Business Thinking’s Technology pages, which gives a background. Briefly though, instead of owning software, in the cloud we rent it over the internet. Instead of storing data and running emails on a server it is all kept securely in one or more data centres, which makes remote or shared access easy on the move.

So Office 365 is a set of web enabled tools that gives access to email, documents, contacts, and the benefits of interactivity from almost anywhere and on almost any device.

Let’s take a peek at the main ingredients. Exchange Online is where our email and calendar sits. There’s anti-spam and virus protection and more, all available through Office Outlook on our desktops, the Outlook Web App in Web browsers, or Outlook Mobile on a mobile device like the Windows Phone, Nokia, Android, iPhone, or the ubiquitous BlackBerry.

SharePoint Online powers document sharing and collaboration through internal and external sites and enables us to build external websites with free online tools. We also get to use our own domain name such as ‘www.mycompany.co.uk’, and an email address like ‘boss@mycompany.co.uk’.

Lync Online offers presence information, which cleverly enables us to check the availability of the person or people we want to communicate with. It has tools like instant messaging, audio and visual messaging, plus interactive whiteboards; which are all just the job for bringing virtual meetings to life.

Office Web Apps are browser-based versions of Excel, Word, and PowerPoint which let us view and edit documents in most web browsers.Here are a few general things I’ve learned about Office 365 which seem important:

- All the attributes mentioned above are available for both PCs and Macs
- You can create sites where information can be accessed by colleagues, partners and customers
- The additional month-to-month arrangement, which gives the option of withdrawing if doesn’t seem right your particular business is also appealing.
- However, as a precaution it is wise to keep backing-up your data, contacts, emails etc. You really can’t expect Microsoft to keep your data for you if you are not a customer any more.

So these are the bones of the Office 365 offering. In the coming weeks we’ll look at all this in far greater detail.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of online information available about Office 365 from Microsoft, just go to www.microsoft.com/en-gb/office365/online-software to find out more.

Watch the video of Gill Le Fevre, IW Online Services Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft UK, who explains how Office 365 addresses the challenges that small businesses face.