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Microsoft Office 365 enters public beta

Microsoft has been testing its Office 365 suit of cloud-based productivity applications with partner businesses since last October, but the company is now throwing to doors open to anyone who wants to give it a whirl. The public beta of Office 365 combined Microsoft Office, SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, and Lync Online to provide an always-available document and communications system that’s available from anywhere users can connect to the Internet—and the public beta is available in 38 countries and 17 languages for people to try out.

Microsoft Office 365 Web site setup

“We’ve been in the cloud for years supporting large enterprises such as Shell and DuPont, but Office 365 takes that same technology power and delivers it to small businesses,” said Microsoft Office corporate VP Kirk Koenigsbauer, in a statement. “More than 70 percent of the people who signed up for the limited beta were small businesses, so it clearly strikes a chord.”

Aimed primarily at businesses, Office 365 brings together Microsoft’s suite of Office Web Apples with hosted SharePoint and Exchange services to enable collaboration and communication, all held together by Microsoft Lync, which makes sure messages and documents stay up to date and synced across services and users. Office 365 can be used for everything from creating speadsheets, word processor documents, presentations, and public Web sites to email, instant messaging, and online meetings. Microsoft is using its ForeFront security technology to make sure information and materials stored in the service remain secure from prying eyes, and promised Office 365 will have 99.9 percent uptime.

Microsoft will also be running the Office 365 Marketplace, where Microsoft partners will be able to offer supplementary programs and services for sale.

For now, the Office 365 public beta is free to use; once the service launches, Microsoft will be offering the service in two primary packages, one for businesses with 25 or fewer employees and one set of plans for larger enterprises. Small businesses will pay $6 per month per person for Office 365; larger enterprises will pay from $10 to $27 per person per month. Separate plans will be available for educational institutions.

Office 365 is Microsoft’s effort to compete with Google in the cloud-based apps space, and while Microsoft may indeed have been in the cloud “for years” with its larger enterprise customers, Google has been in the cloud-based application service even longer—and has had more time to refine and tool their application offerings without the legacy weight of Microsoft Office. That said, Microsoft Office’s ubiquity in business and corporate environments should be a huge leg up for Microsoft as it tries to convince businesses to subscribe to Office 365—after all, if your business already relies on Microsoft productivity applications, it may not be hard to convince people cloud capabilities will be a good thing.