With Office 365 you get what amounts to a two-for-one deal from Steve Ballmer: You get the Web-based office tools -- including limited versions of Outlook, Word and Excel and access to the company's Web servers and email tools -- and the ability to connect all that to on-premises versions of the Microsoft Office software on your computer.

Yes, it's confusing, but the two-for-one discount packs real benefits. First, at least in my first-blush testing, the Web-based riffs of Microsoft Office work pretty well. The stripped down, online versions of Outlook, Word and Excel behave mostly as their on-premises cousins do. And there are nice features such as Lync Online, which enables basic chat. The Web-based versions of SharePoint and Exchange support quality company intranets and secure email, at least in the single seat I am using. And with enough tinkering -- more on that later -- the PC-based full versions of Word, Excel and all the rest connect effectively to the Web-based system. Best of all, the whole system can be tightly managed from a central location, which offers a nice, cozy level of security.

So at least in theory, your business gets a relatively affordable means to have both the power of Web-based collaboration and the functionality of software that runs on your PC.

What isn't it?
Office 365 is neither a first-quality Web experience nor something you or your people are going to understand, at least to start.

For all the steps Microsoft has taken in making its software Web-ready, be warned: Office 365 cannot match the wide-open Internet in terms of collaboration or ease of use. Google Apps, for example, crushes this application when it comes to collaborative features. And installing Office 365, at least in this beta, is far from smooth. Software must be downloaded, connections established, licences managed and all the rest. For a generation of Web users weened on logging into Facebook and instantly typing their brains out, Office 365 takes some getting used to.

What do I do?
For sure, anybody with skin in the office software game should take a look at this beta, if only to get a feel for what Microsoft is up to. I expect you will find Office 365 surprisingly powerful. But(!) I would definitely hold off deploying this tool in an active office until the beta develops a bit.

It just too early to say whether Redmond's attempt to ride the Web wave will send them gracefully up on the beach ... or crush them utterly out on the rocks.

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