With today’s release of Office 365, it’s important to understand what it is and what it means for your company. The story behind the name is that Microsoft will be behind your business 24×7 when you need it! And if you experience downtime with this product, Microsoft will actually reimburse you in cash for that time (99.9% uptime guarantee!). The Office part of the name is obvious: The main product by Microsoft is still Microsoft Office and is widely used by people all over the world.

Note: This newsletter/article is to give you a conversational perspective of this product. It is not intended to tell you every single detail about it. Microsoft does a fine job of it on its sites and I’ll provide the links to those resources on the Web.

What does Office 365 consist of?
Think of what you need to run your business usually: e-mail, messaging, ways to create and manage documents and other information for your business, an intranet (or someplace where employees can share the info), and an external website. Sounds about right? Well, Office 365 provides you with the following:
Exchange Online – Each employee in your organization gets a 25GB e-mail inbox. They can use the browser or the Microsoft Outlook client to manage e-mails. Very convenient!

Microsoft Office Professional Plus applications – Most of the Office 365 plans offer the employees the ability to download the office applications to their desktop/laptop as part of the subscription. That’s a huge deal because the Office suites by themselves are not cheap. In addition, each person can also work with his or her documents online using Office Web Apps functionality.

SharePoint Online – This is my favorite part of it! An almost full-fledged SharePoint 2010 experience. More on this a bit later.

Lync Online
– Think of Office Live Messenger or Office Communication Services. If you are familiar with any of these, then you have seen parts of what Lync can offer. Instant messaging and live meetings are a snap with Lync.

How much does it cost?
There are a variety of “flavors” that Office 365 offers. The plans are referred to as P1, P2 (for Professionals and Small Businesses) and then E1, E2, E3, E4 (for Enterprise customers). The pricing starts at US$6 per user per month (isn’t that amazing?). The highest price that I have seen is for E4, which is still only $27 per user per month (which is still incredible because this option can help you provide Enterprise voice capabilities and easily replace your entire PBX system).

How is SharePoint Online different from SharePoint 2010 on-premise?
SharePoint Online provides many of the same SharePoint Server 2010 on-premise Enterprise features. For example, InfoPath Forms Services is included, so you can show your InfoPath forms (workflow, form library and list forms) directly in the browser. Enterprise search gives you robust search results, and My Sites features are also present in SharePoint Online.

One notable missing feature from this first release is Business Connectivity Services. Not to worry! It will soon be available in one of the subsequent releases of Office 365, and since there is no upgrade necessary on your part, it will just magically appear one day and you will be notified about it.

The main difference you have to keep in mind is that you do not have access to the Central Administration site for SharePoint Online in Office 365. Also, you cannot access the Web server files. So basically the SharePoint Server administration is offloaded to Microsoft.

Now here’s a difference you are going to like: In Office 365, you can easily invite others outside your organization to collaborate with you within your site collection. That’s a big benefit in my mind!

How will I build solutions on top of SharePoint Online?
If you buy into Office 365, SharePoint Designer 2010 is about to become your best friend. That’s the main application for making customizations to your SharePoint Online environment. Most of what you can do with SharePoint Designer 2010 in a regular on-premise SharePoint 2010 environment is available with SharePoint Online as well. That’s great news because that provides you tons of customization opportunities.

You will not have access to create farm-level solutions using Visual Studio 2010 (VS). VS can still be used by programmers to develop the following types of solutions on top of SharePoint Online:
• Sandboxed Solutions (scoped to a Site Collection)
• Programming against the Client Object Model
• Silverlight and ECMA Script

Check out the SharePoint Online Developers Resource Center to get a better idea of programming opportunities in SharePoint Online.

How do I get started?
That’s the easiest part. It costs nothing to join the Beta program. Start here and you will have a fully functional Office 365 deployment within minutes! Choose the E3 plan if you are a large enterprise (or if you just want see how it works), or choose P1 if you are a small business. Then you can manage your licenses by inviting your personnel to join you in the environment and start using it right away. Within a few weeks (or sooner), Microsoft will open up the Office 365 offering for sale. At that time you can decide to keep the environment and start paying for it or let it go.

Also note that if you are already a BPOS (Business Productivity Online Services—the older and far less powerful version of Office 365) customer, Microsoft will guide you to transition your content and people to Office 365.

Additional info on Office 365
Social Media: Check out the Office 365 Blog, Office 365 Facebook account to connect directly to the team working on this offering.

Video Tutorials: We are looking to create video tutorials on Office 365 within the next couple of months. Look out for that on the SharePoint-Videos site.

Upcoming Article: I have written a MSDN white paper on Customizing SharePoint Online using SharePoint Designer 2010. Hopefully it should be published soon. I’ll link to it through this newsletter once it’s out on the site.