It also allows you to replace a large up-front payment for software licences with smaller, regular subscription fees – and you’ll always have access to the latest applications. In addition, Office 365 offers a number of extra cloud-based business applications and features that you don’t get with the standard desktop suite.
However, you’ll need to do your homework before signing up because Microsoft offers nine different plans.
The cheapest option is Office Online, Microsoft’s free cloud-based suite. Anyone can sign up at office.com to gain instant access to webmail and calendar (Outlook.com) and online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, along with 15GB of cloud storage (OneDrive) that allows you to synchronise files between computers.
The standard desktop suite, Office 2013, integrates with OneDrive and Outlook.com so that you can access your documents and email from anywhere.
Office 365 ups the OneDrive storage to 1TB per user, but beyond that it gets more complicated. The personal plans start at $9 per month and include desktop versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote for Windows or Mac. Microsoft also offers iOS, Android and Windows Phone mobile versions of its applications, which are free for personal use but require a licence for business use.
The Office 365 business plans offer a number of additional cloud applications, including:
- Business-class email that supports a custom domain name and includes a 50GB inbox per user
- Collaboration tools, including Lync (web conferencing and instant messaging), Yammer (social networking for business) and Team sites (intranet).
However, the business plans vary significantly in what they include.
How the business plans compare
|Office 365 Business Essentials||Office 365 Business||Office 365 Business Premium|
|Price per user per month|
|Office Applications||Cloud versions only||Cloud, mobile and desktop versions||Cloud, mobile and desktop versions|
|Business-class cloud email||Yes||No||Yes|
|Lync web conferencing,|
Yammer and Team Sites
For larger organisations, Office 365’s Enterprise plans offer additional high-end features such as enterprise application management, business intelligence, unified messaging and data compliance tools. Again, there are three Enterprise editions that offer a different mix of features. See for a full comparison of business and enterprise plans.
Cloud versus desktop apps
Given that not every Office 365 plan includes the desktop applications, can you make do with just the cloud versions? Perhaps – if you don’t have demanding needs.
The cloud and mobile apps have many basic features of the desktop versions and they’re generally fine for simple documents, but they lack a number of advanced features. For example, Word Online lacks track changes and mail merge, and PowerPoint Online has fewer animations and transitions. The big problem with the cloud versions – particularly for commuters and travellers – is needing to have easy online access your documents.
So, while Office 365 has a lot to offer businesses, many will want a plan that includes the desktop suite.