Microsoft has introduced the public beta of its Office 365, the company's cloud-productivity offering and current best chance for driving back the threat presented by Google Apps and similar platforms. Microsoft has a habit of launching large-scale betas for its products, the better to apparently weed out bugs and other issues ahead of the general release.
The Office 365 beta will be available in 38 markets and 17 languages and joins Microsoft Office, SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online. The service's starting price is $6 per user per month. In addition, Microsoft is launching the Office 365 Marketplace, with more than 100 productivity apps and 400 professional services.
Microsoft originally launched Office 365 in limited beta in October 2010, announcing at the time that general availability would come sometime in 2011. The platform is essentially a rebranding of the company's BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), which bundled products such as SharePoint Online.
The software giant has also expressed interest in selling Office 365 as a customizable platform, allowing companies with simpler needs to access fewer products. For the past several months, Microsoft has been aggressive in pushing an "all-in" cloud strategy, major components of which involve pushing a variety of cloud-based IT services to corporations. The push comes just as Microsoft faces competition not only from Google, which wants to secure large IT contracts with corporations and government entities, but also upstarts such as Salesforce.com, which have taken to attacking many of Microsoft's current offerings as outdated.
In virtually every public speech, for example, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff extols the enterprise IT future as mobile-centric and constantly updated via the cloud. Despite having made its fortune in desktop-centric software, however, Microsoft also seems to realize the fundamentals underlying the tech industry are undergoing a massive paradigm shift: hence Office 365, Windows Azure and other platforms.
Microsoft is also partnering with Research In Motion to integrate its cloud offerings into BlackBerry devices, with the latter providing cloud-based BlackBerry service in support of Office 365. RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise servers will connect "cloud to cloud" with Microsoft's data centers to host Office 365 on users' Blackberrys.
RIM's upcoming PlayBook tablet will be able to port and display Office 365 data from any user's BlackBerry, through the BlackBerry Bridge tethering service.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's battle with Google over large cloud contracts has grown particularly intense in the past few months, with the search-engine giant even suing the federal government after the Department of the Interior allegedly denied its bid to update an email and messaging system. Microsoft's BPOS-Federal suite eventually won that contract, estimated at $59 million over a five-year life cycle.
Last October, Microsoft announced a partnership with New York City's government to provide municipal employees with access to cloud-based Microsoft applications, in what many saw as a sort of response to Google's agreement with the City of Los Angeles to provide cloud services to its employees.