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Welcome to the Microsoft 365 Era

Posted March 31, 2020 | Microsoft 365 | Microsoft Intune | Office 365 | Uncategorized | Windows | Windows 10

I’ve been writing about Microsoft for over 25 years, and there is nothing more fascinating about this company than its successful transition to the cloud. And it’s been happening for longer than many may remember: From the earliest days of Windows Azure and Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) from over a decade ago to today, a lot has changed.

Including, of course, that branding. Windows Azure is now called Microsoft Azure, and BPOS, after a years-long run as Office 365, is likewise beginning its own transition to the Microsoft brand.

Welcome, everyone, to the Microsoft 365 era.

This is notable in part because Microsoft 365 is for the first time available for everyone. Just this week, the software giant announced that its consumer Office 365 offerings were also transitioning to this new brand as Microsoft 365 Personal and Microsoft 365 Family. At a high level, these subscription plans aren’t really changing much in that they both still include access to the continually-updated Office desktop applications, 1 TB of OneDrive cloud storage per person, 60 minutes of Skype credit for calling mobile phones and landlines, and more. But Microsoft is also improving them with additional AI- and cloud-powered experiences over the next few months. And it is adapting its latest success story, Microsoft Teams, with additional consumer-oriented features that will help individuals further blend their work and personal lives in useful ways.

That’s all very exciting, and we’ll be writing a lot here on about the changes coming to the consumer solutions as they occur. But as many readers know, I’m much more concerned with the underlying shift in Microsoft’s strategy that triggered this rebranding. And what it means for its plans to make individuals and businesses more productive through its collective Microsoft 365 offerings. And on a related note, the bigger commercial side of the Microsoft 365 business also quietly revealed this week that it is likewise transitioning its Office 365 offerings for small- and medium-sized businesses to new Microsoft 365 brands as well. (Most of Microsoft’s enterprise-focused Office 365 solutions will retain their traditional brands, at least for now.) Change is afoot.

And I am all about this change. In fact, I’ve been contemplating shifting my own focus accordingly for quite some time. In a Thurrott Premium newsletter editorial last month, for example, I discussed my desire to write less about consumer technologies and more on the massive world of Office 365 and Microsoft 365 information that needs to be decoded and documented across desktop, web, and mobile. It’s a big, important, and far-reaching topic.

And, truth be told, this shift has already started. Last month, I wrote about when an Office 365—now a Microsoft 365—commercial subscription would make sense for an individual and about the secret Azure Active Directory capabilities that come with every Office 365 and Microsoft 365 commercial account. And I also started a six-episode Microsoft 365 Knowledge podcast series with Microsoft’s Stephen Rose. We’re four episodes in as I write this, and have recorded shows about Microsoft 365 from a high level, Office 365 and collaboration, management and security, and Microsoft Teams so far. That last one is particularly timely given the situation worldwide these days.

But many readers are probably still confused about Microsoft 365, how it differs from Office 365, and how it fits into Microsoft’s broader strategy. You may also be surprised to discover how this strategy has evolved over the years and how Microsoft’s embrace of the cloud is a fundamental, generational change for a business that, quite frankly, many had written off years ago. But having successfully made this transition, Microsoft, now one of the biggest companies in the world, is helping guide its own customers through their own digital transformations.

Early days

In 2005, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates penned an open letter in which he described what he called “the new world of work,” a world in which the first generation of people who never experienced life without the Internet would soon enter the workforce. He talked of “always-on” work environments, productivity software powered by online services, and team collaboration functionality, ideas that seem awfully familiar today.

At that time, Microsoft described Office as a system—as in, the Microsoft Office System—a term meant to encapsulate the product family’s evolution beyond traditional desktop applications to Office servers and, for the first time, online services. Microsoft Office Live—a companion set of services designed to provide for Office what Windows Live did for Microsoft’s then-flagship product—was the first major set of such services. It was released in 2006 and included web presence capabilities for businesses as well as online collaboration functionality and a suite of business applications. By 2007, it had expanded to include Office Live Workspace, the first real Office online service, which provided roaming access to Office documents.

These online offerings evolved to include the Office Web Apps in 2010, providing web-based versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. At that time, the biggest concern was what Microsoft called round-tripping, the ability to edit Office documents in non-traditional clients on the web and mobile and have them work with the full fidelity of the native document formats. But what Microsoft was working towards was perhaps even more prescient if no less important: The ability to work from anywhere, at any time, and on the client of your choice.

To the cloud

Concurrent to these efforts, Microsoft was also working to establish cloud-based versions of its Office servers, and it released Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) in 2008, offering its customers Microsoft-provided alternatives to hosted Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications, and other services. BPOS was replaced in 2010 by Office 365, which arrived with a key innovation that would impact how the software giant delivered its software and services going forward: Unlike BPOS and its traditional Office offerings on both client and server, Office 365 wasn’t available piecemeal. Instead, customers would get all of the Office cloud services, which at the time included the Office Web Apps, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Lync Online.

There were other differences, of course—Office 365 also targeted all of Microsoft’s customers, including the enterprise, and not just smaller businesses—but this new approach meant that multiple Office solutions, for the first time, could be developed and improved together, opening up new forms of cross-product/service integration. In the past, Microsoft couldn’t rely on, say, most of its Exchange customers also having access to SharePoint, and so those systems were developed in relative isolation, and with limited integration. But offering it together changed that.

This innovation occurred on the client as well, with Microsoft offering Office 365 subscriptions that consisted of only its online services, only its desktop application suite, or both, together.

Microsoft’s volume licensing programs had essentially been offering subscriptions to its biggest customers for years, but with Office 365, the firm also expanded the notion of subscriptions by making them available to all customers, and by ensuring that subscribers saw new features first. And in those uncertain early days of cloud computing, Microsoft also promoted a service-level agreement (SLA) that ensured levels of uptime to customers, with credits should those levels not be met.

Also key to Office 365 was its wide variety of plans, which were designed so that customers could provide exactly the tools and functionality needed by their potentially diverse user bases. It was never a one-size-fits-all solution, like those provided by some competitors, such as Google.

That said, Office 365, like BPOS, was somewhat controversial at first, in part because it seemed to obviate the need for hosting partners. Too, many administrators of on-premises infrastructure were threatened by Microsoft’s inroads into what they saw as their responsibilities and livelihoods. Today, however, Office 365 seems like a no-brainer to most customers thanks to the obvious value, and we’ve seen over time how frequently Microsoft updates the products with useful new features. And, more recently, how the firm has expanded Office 365 to include Windows 10 and its cloud-based management infrastructure.

This new product family, of course, is called Microsoft 365.

Microsoft 365 brings it all together

Windows and Microsoft’s management solutions followed their own evolutionary paths during the periods described above. But both were inspired by Office 365 showing how a traditional software business could successfully evolve into cloud services or, in the case of Windows, a product that is serviced as if it were a cloud service.

The Windows approach, started with Windows 8 and codified into Windows as a Service (WaaS) with Windows 10, is designed to simplify how the desktop operating system is updated, both for Microsoft—which at one point was supporting dozens of Windows product versions across client and server—and its customers. We can quibble over the cadence and quality of feature updates, which are essentially version upgrades made currently on a biannual schedule, but many businesses can opt-in to longer support options.

More important, I think, is Microsoft’s ability to deliver bug and security fixes—what it calls cumulative updates—to its customers. Most readers are familiar with the unofficial term Patch Tuesday, that second Tuesday of every month when Microsoft has historically delivered software patches to various products via Windows and Microsoft Update. Less well known, perhaps, is that Patch Tuesday is a relic of a less fluid past, and that Microsoft now delivers updates at any time during any given month. This capability makes its products and their users more secure, of course, and it helps Microsoft respond quickly if new vulnerabilities are quickly exploited.

Microsoft’s management solutions evolved similarly to Office and Office 365: In 2011, it released a cloud-based solution called Windows Intune that focused solely on PC management and was the lightweight and small business-friendly alternative to Systems Management Server (later called System Center Configuration Manager, or SCCM), its on-premises PC management infrastructure server.

Intune was later rebranded as Microsoft Intune and it adopted Mobile Device Management (MDM) capabilities for phones and tablets while improving its integration with SCCM over time. Today, many customers have moved to hybrid solutions (between SSCM and Intune) for PC/device management or purely to the cloud, just as many have done so with user management via Active Directory (AD) and/or Azure Active Directory (AAD). Both are fully supported in Microsoft 365.

Microsoft 365 today

To date, Microsoft has maintained two Office 365 subscriptions for consumers and numerous Office 365 and Microsoft 365 subscriptions for its commercial customers. On the commercial side, the Office 365 subscriptions have long been positioned as entry-level Microsoft 365 subscriptions, despite the names.

But this week’s announcements signal a shift in balance towards the more obvious Microsoft 365 brand. Now, all of the firm’s consumer and small- and medium-sized Office 365 solutions are being rebranded as Microsoft 365. Most of its enterprise-focused Office 365 offerings will retain the old branding, though that will presumably change over time.

This will be somewhat confusing in the short term, as some of these brands were quite popular. But it’s worth reviewing each change, and what each Microsoft 365 subscription offers.

Let’s start with the Microsoft 365 solutions that target small- and medium-sized businesses.

Office 365 Business Essentials will become Microsoft 365 Business Basic. This offering costs $5 per user per month with an annual commitment and provides access to Exchange, SharePoint, and Teams, plus 1 TB of cloud storage in OneDrive for Business. Users can access Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on the web, Android, and iOS.

Office 365 Business will become Microsoft 365 Apps for Business. This offering costs $8.25 per user per month with an annual commitment and provides access to Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS (and the web), plus Publisher and Access on Windows only. It also includes 1 TB of cloud storage in OneDrive for Business and can be used on up to 5 PCs, 5 phones, and 5 tablets per user.

Office 365 Business Premium will become Microsoft 365 Business Standard. This offering costs $12.50 per user per month with an annual commitment, and is basically a combination of the two previous offerings, as it provides both the online services and full access to all of the Office applications across desktop, web, and mobile.

Microsoft 365 Business will become Microsoft 365 Business Premium. This offering costs $20 per user per month with an annual commitment. It includes everything found in Microsoft 365 Business Standard and adds advanced security features like Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection, policy-based management of Windows 10 PCs and mobile devices, Intune MDM features like Selective Wipe, Information Rights Management (IRM) functionality, unlimited cloud archive and long-term preservation policies with Exchange Online Archiving, and much more. This is less well documented, but Microsoft 365 Business Premium also provides Windows 10 settings sync across multiple PCs through AAD.

As noted, most Office 365 and Microsoft 365 enterprise plans are not changing, and Microsoft has many offerings that span education, government, and other types of organizations. But there is one major branding change of note:

Office 365 ProPlus will become Microsoft Apps for Enterprise. Perhaps the most popular of the Office 365 commercial offerings, the new Microsoft Apps for Enterprise costs $12 per user per month with an annual commitment and provides access to Exchange, SharePoint, and Teams, plus 1 TB of cloud storage in OneDrive for Business. It can be used on up to 5 PCs, 5 phones, and 5 tablets per user, and businesses that purchase at least 150 seats get FastTrack deployment support at no extra cost. (For those unfamiliar, Fast Track for Microsoft 365 includes a Desktop App Assure service that assesses application compatibility across millions of PCs and helps enterprise customers move forward to Windows 10 with minimal interruption._

Embracing the Microsoft 365 future

With Windows 10, Office 365, and Microsoft’s management solutions are integrated into Microsoft 365, we can see the impact of these products being developed in parallel. So in addition to the mammoth set of updates that Microsoft releases for individual Microsoft 365 components each month, there are broader changes that impact the service as a whole.

The recent Microsoft 365 for life announcements provide a good example. In addition to rebranding its consumer Office 365 offerings as Microsoft 365 Personal and Family, Microsoft in the coming weeks and months will release new features that touch on our work/life balance and span its consumer and commercial offerings.

Key among these features is the coming ability to add your personal calendars—not just from but also from Gmail—to Outlook on the web using your Office 365 commercial account. This isn’t just about seeing your personal and work-related commitments in one place, though that is certainly useful. Instead, Microsoft will also allow your coworkers to see your full availability when they try to schedule meetings with you.

To be clear, Microsoft will still respect you and your family’s privacy: Your coworkers won’t see details about your personal appointments, only that you are busy at those times. If you’re familiar with how free and busy times work when scheduling appointments with others in Outlook today, you get the idea.

Microsoft is also working to integrate Teams with Skype and to make a consumer version of Teams available for those who wish to use its unique features with their families. When you consider how integral Teams has become to our work lives in recent weeks alone—Teams usage surged by 10 million users to 44 million active daily users in one week alone recently because of stay-at-home orders related to the Coronavirus—this integration is all the more crucial. And Microsoft is now enabling Teams and Skype federation, too, so that Teams users can access families and friends on Skype using the tool they already rely on.

More generally, Microsoft has also been working to make its user experiences more consistent across its relevant consumer and commercial offerings. (consumer) and Outlook on the web (commercial) were both moved to common underpinnings and now share nearly identical user interfaces. You can configure personal and work accounts together in the OneDrive client on Windows 10, Android, and iOS. And Microsoft has created a consistent way to access your Office applications and most recent documents across the portals for both consumer and commercial, and in the Office apps for Windows 10, Android, and iOS.

There’s so much more to discuss when it comes to Microsoft 365, and while I’m particularly interested in the integration pieces, many individual features—which again, arrive at an astonishing rate every month—will warrant further attention as well. So I’ll be examining as much of it as possible in the coming weeks and months.

Disclosure: Microsoft sponsored this article, but it had no input on or feedback to its topic or contents. The opinions expressed here are my own. And as I note above, I’ve been looking into expanding my Microsoft 365 coverage for months, and will continue writing more about this service going forward. –Paul

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