The University of Tennessee recently deployed new functionality within Office 365 for the various campuses and institutes, including the one I work for now, the Institute of Agriculture. Activate might be a more accurate word, as all of the new functionality we have right now actually lives and operates within Microsoft’s O365 cloud offering. We don’t have the entire suite of online service available to us just yet, most notably not Exchange Online or Lync Online, but the former is coming once we get a solution for all of our Public Folders users and the latter is coming in October. Nothing will make me happier than being able to say goodbye to OCS 2007R2 and hello to Lync on my iPhone and iPad.
The Good: Office Online, A3 Upgrade, OneDrive for Business
So if we don’t have Exchange and Lync yet, what do we have? Good quesiton. All faculty and staff at UT now have Office Online, which is similar to Google Docs and contains browser-based version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, as well as OneDrive for Business. You can access these by going to the Microsoft Cloud Services Login Portal and signing in with your email address (most likely firstname.lastname@example.org) and NetID password.
Office Online is pretty good. I’ve only ever dablled with Google Docs, and the online versions of the Office apps look a lot better and are very easy to use. So easy, in fact, that I asked my wife to sign into to her O365 account, create a sample Word document, and share it with me. That took about 2 minutes and you can see it worked just fine.
Another really good thing about O365 is the available A3 upgrade for faculty and staff. For $29 per year, upgrading to the A3 Office 365 license allows a user to download and install Office on up to 5 personally owned computers. That’s a pretty good deal. In addition to providing Office for use on personally owned computers, the A3 upgrade activates Office for iPad (and presumably other mobile platforms) as well, enabling full editing capabilities on the excellent Office for iPad applications.
I recently purchased the A3 upgrade for my O365 account and I’m glad I did. I think $29 per year provides a lot of value in making sure I can work with Office documents wherever I am, on whichever device I choose. I also believe there will be other benefits of the A3 upgrade once we move to Exchange Online.
Another feature of O365 that catches the interest of our users is OneDrive for Business. We’re early adopters of Windows 8, and have recommended OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive – the personal service) for our users since it integrates so well into Windows 8 and Office. But OneDrive (personal) was only recently upgraded to 15GB of free space, and while extra space was available for a fee, it wasn’t as price-competitive as Google’s similar Google Drive offering in the past. OneDrive for Business now offers 1 terabyte of space for each user. That sounds awesome, and in some ways it is awesome. That’s the Good from my post title above. To the extent that a user can actually use 1TB of space, it is awesome.
The Bad and Confusing: OneDrive for Business
But can a user really use 1TB of space on OneDrive for Business? Maybe. And this is where the Bad and the Confusing come in.
It is possible in many ways to use OneDrive for Business as a drop-in replacement for OneDrive (personal), and if all you’re doing is working on your own Office documents, it works quite well for that. But if you want to actively share files and folders with others, or work with a great many files, or make use of OneDrive for Business on anything other than Windows – that’s where things get complicated, confusing, and in some cases, very frustrating.
Why is this? Why are some of my users who love OneDrive frustrated with OneDrive for Business? Without being privy to any inside information about either product, I think the main reason is that while OneDrive has some sort of unknown secret sauce backend in the cloud that makes it operate identically to Dropbox or Google Drive, OneDrive for Business is really just SharePoint with some OneDrive-like frontend slapped on it. Now SharePoint isn’t bad, although it also isn’t something that I wake up in the morning longing to work with. But what SharePoint is, is a product/service with limitations that probably make a ton of sense when you’re using SharePoint as a web platform to share documents and all the other things SharePoint does. But those limitations can slap you in the face when you’re told your shiny new OneDrive for Business account can hold 1TB of files and you think, “Oh goodie, let’s just make it my everything bucket.” One of those limitations is the number of files it can handle, which I believe is 20,000. That’s a large number of files, and I haven’t hit that limit and likely never will with my work files. But I have two coworkers, both web developers or designers, who have. They literally cannot put everything into OneDrive for Business that they formerly had in OneDrive. So what are they to do? We currently don’t know, other than to suggest they keep folders with gigantic numbers of files elsewhere.
Another confusing thing we’ve noticed about OneDrive for Business is how sharing files with it is very different from doing so in OneDrive or Dropbox. Nearly all of our users are familiar with Dropbox, and a great many of them use it or OneDrive, so they’re used to sharing files or folders with others and having those files and folders be accessible where? Right there in their Dropbox or OneDrive folders. It simply doesn’t work that way with OneDrive for Business, and while it is possible to easily access items shared with you via the web interface, accessing them via File Explorer as a file system object is a pain in the neck. I had to create a 2 page document with screenshots to explain the completely unintuitive process. The instructions help, and I’ve had normal users successfully follow them, but the process is way too complicated, makes no sense (unless you keep in mind this is really SharePoint), and needs to be streamlined by Microsoft.
In addition to those issues, the main thing bugging me about OneDrive for Business right now is that there is no client for OS X, so while I can use OneDrive all day long on my Macs at home, my only way to interface with the 1TB of space I have on OneDrive for Business is either via the web, or via the old Microsoft Document Connection utility from Office 2011. The MDC is fine for dealing with Office documents, but if Microsoft is providing me with 1TB of space, I want to use it for a lot more than just Office documents.
The iOS app for OneDrive for Business is oddly lacking in features as well. While the OneDrive app for OneDrive (personal) can automatically backup my camera roll to OneDrive, the OneDrive for Business app cannot. I can also not use it to even add a file or picture to OneDrive for Business – it’s strictly a view-only interface.
As we make more use of Office 365, and especially as we move to Exchange and Lync Online, I plan to write more about it, and especially how well it works for our higher education users. Right now, I am quite happy with Office Online and the extra features afforded me by the A3 upgrade, particularly Office for iPad. I am dissatisfied with the ongoing lack of a Mac client for it, but Microsoft says they’re working on it. I hope Microsoft is also working on making OneDrive for Business an easier to use, more intuitive service, to deliver on the potential of that terabyte of cloud storage.