It’s time to take a serious look at Office 365. The cloud edition of Microsoft’s broadly adopted business productivity suite – which bundles such popular packages as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Microsoft Outlook – has been both heavily praised and heavily criticized since its introduction in 2011. While the adoption rate of the traditional software edition of Microsoft Office is currently in no danger of being overtaken by its cloud-hosted cousin, recent adoption rates for Office 365 have substantially accelerated. Businesses, in particular, have shown increased interest in the cloud-based platform, and many are carefully considering whether to make the transition after existing Enterprise Agreement (EA) licenses expire.

Currently, Microsoft offers a variety of licensing plans for both home and business users of Office 365. However, all Office 365 plans are based on subscription pricing models (i.e., per user per month or per user per year) as opposed to the one-time perpetual licenses offered with Microsoft Office. In November 2014, Microsoft introduced free versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel apps for iOS and Android platforms independent of Office 365; however, the licensing agreement for these apps states that they can only be used for “non-commercial purposes” (though I’m really not sure how that could possibly be enforced). Clearly these free mobile editions were made in direct response to the increasing popularity of Google Docs in that particular market. It should also be noted that Microsoft offers a free package of web-based apps, Office Online, which is a lobotomized version of Office and should be avoided at all costs to retain your sanity.

While Microsoft has promoted a number of reasons to adopt Office 365, in my opinion there are only two that really matter: to support enterprise mobility and to reduce costs. Here’s a summary of the benefits of both:

  • Supporting Enterprise Mobility – A single user license for Office 365 will support up to 5 devices of any type. So, users can employ any combination of PC and mobile devices that would enable them to be most productive whenever and wherever they need to read, create, and/or edit documents. Additionally, for its Office 365 customers, Microsoft offers free and unlimited access to its cloud storage solution, OneDrive. While users can still store data on their local devices, any files stored on OneDrive will be accessible by any other devices they use. OneDrive also enables files to be shared with coworkers or to create collaboration environments.
  • Reducing the Cost of Operations – With Office 365, license costs are substantially reduced for users who employ multiple devices. Unlike Microsoft Office, which requires individual licenses to be purchased for every device, Office 365 requires only a single license for up to 5 devices. Additionally, this subscription pricing is more conducive for organizations with fixed budgets (particularly SMBs) and can be substantially cheaper for supporting short-term projects (i.e., those lasting less than two years).

All organizations are different, and a number of factors will need to be considered when deciding if transitioning from locally installed software to a cloud-based solution is right for you. Some of the factors include organization size, industry type, user requirements, regulatory compliance goals, budget restrictions, and the breadth of available IT support. Detractors of Office 365 primarily raise concerns about reliability and performance. For instance, organizations with heavy security or regulatory compliance requirements may be restricted from using applications that host data in multi-tenant environments. Also, while Microsoft claims 99.9% uptime on the hosting environment, unreliable internet and LAN network connectivity could impact the performance of the platform. To be clear, while Office 365 does not require persistent connectivity (as it runs locally on each device), it still requires periodic contact with the cloud-hosted environment and, of course, it is necessary for accessing any files stored on OneDrive. Synchronization issues with Outlook and SharePoint have also been frequently noted by users as challenges to the platforms reliability.

Organizations that do decide to make the leap to adopting Office 365 should be prepared to carefully manage the various licenses adopted for each user. For instance, since each user can assign their license to up to five devices, it is possible that multiple licenses could be assigned to a single device, which is obviously not cost-effective. Additionally, it’s important to know the type of license employed by each user, the length of the license term (monthly or annually), and when the term expires to prevent the business from being charged for any software that is no longer being used.

Taking all these pros and cons into consideration along with your own unique business requirements (and a measure of common sense) should provide ideal guidance on whether it’s time to transition to Office 365. One final note: Don’t be afraid of the cloud simply for fear of change. Cloud-hosted services are neither the ultimate solution nor the ultimate challenge. They simply represent another technology approach to be evaluated – another tool in the belt to be employed when it makes the most sense for your organization.