David Tebbutt, Teblog

Yesterday, Microsoft announced 'worldwide' availability of its Business Productivity Online Suite. And it barely mentioned 'cloud'. Hurrah. But it did mention software plus services which is Microsoft's way of coupling power at the desktop with online services. The service, by the way, was introduced in the USA last November.

'Worldwide' to Microsoft means nineteen countries (listed below) and five languages. And it runs in four data centres: Two in the USA, then one each in Dublin and Singapore. Amsterdam and Hong Kong data centres provide what Microsoft calls 'geo-redundancy'.

This may be a strange way to start talking about a new service, but some organisations are very fussy about where their information is stored and processed. For those who aren't, then Microsoft claims the "best-in-class SLAs and IT governance". 99.9 percent uptime, for example, and nine levels of security.

The countries served by this new announcement are:  Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and UK.

What's on offer is hosted versions of some well known software from which you can mix and match according to your needs: Exchange, SharePoint, Office Live Meeting and Office Communications.

The benefits are the usual ones associated with moving to a reliable cloud service: someone else takes care of the headaches associated with installing and owning equipment, keeping the applications up to date, backup and security, and so on. And, of course, you get the usual benefits associated with collaboration and communication applications. Neither of these is specific to Microsoft or to its hosted services, but if you're already a Microsoft shop then it's a much shorter step than changing software vendors.

Microsoft introduced the concept of the 'desk-less' worker. Someone who maybe works on a factory floor but who needs periodic access to basic services, perhaps through a shared PC or kiosk. They're not what you'd term 'knowledge workers', the sort that would benefit from the full capabilities. Each counts as a 'user' from the billing perspective but the monthly cost is much less than for regular users.

Pricing is per element per user, by number of elements signed up for and additional data storage. You can learn more on the UK pricing and availability page.

The 'worldwide' system started trials yesterday and will be available for purchase next month. From April Fools Day, as it happens. Microsoft is offering a 30-day free trial. Depending on factors such as company size, it can be bought directly from Microsoft or through its resellers.

There's a lot to be said for going the Microsoft route – not least the ready availability of people already familiar with the software elements. Setting up an effective SharePoint system, for example, still requires some skill and effort. It is, however, an inflection point and other vendors are putting together some decent online offerings. The obvious ones are Google and IBM, although the brave might prefer to assemble a 'best of breed' solution. Microsoft, however, has the huge benefit of customer inertia. But will that be enough to see it through?

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