Microsoft launches Office 365, the latest version of its online services for email, collaboration, and instant messaging tomorrow.
But this isn’t Microsoft’s first shot — the company has been offering a similar service called the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) to small and mid-size businesses since 2008, and to larger companies since 2007.
So it would make sense for Microsoft to upgrade all BPOS customers automatically to Office 365, right?
That’s not how it’s going to work, though.
As IDG News points out today, the upgrade process is complicated enough that Microsoft has devoted an entire Web site to it. In particular, customers who are on Outlook 2003 — the desktop email software that works with Microsoft’s email server and services — will have to upgrade to a more recent version to use Office 365 email. Same with other Office 2003 apps — customers will have to upgrade Office if they want to get the document syncing feature of Office 365.
In other words, Office 365 is a cloud offering that encourages customers to upgrade their desktop software — Microsoft’s traditional and still most profitable business.
There are also price differences, new features that might require employee retraining, and other technical changes that basically make Office 365 a brand new service. Microsoft will migrate customer data to the new service, but customers will have to do some work when it comes to these other changes.
One might be inclined to give Microsoft a break here — it’s just getting its head around this whole cloud computing thing, after all — except that the company has done this before. Multiple times.
In 2006, the company launched Office Live, which provided an online location for storing and collaborating on Office documents. It was phased out in favour of Windows Live and SkyDrive in 2009.
Before that, there was a set of online services for small businesses called bCentral, which offered hosted business management, accounting, and other services. It was mostly scuttled, with some services rebranded as Office Live, back in 2005.
In each case, any company who trusted its business to these services had to find alternatives or make complicated and expensive changes to respond to Microsoft’s shifting online strategy.
Office 365 looks like Microsoft’s best effort yet — it’s been rebuilt from the ground up to be more reliable. But looking at this track record, potential customers have to wonder: what’s to prevent Microsoft from starting over again in three years? And what happens to Office 365 customers when they do?
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.