During the Office 365 for Enterprises session at Microsoft's TechEd 2012 conference, technical product manager Andy O'Donald said the new version of Office 365 will go into general availability sometime during 2013, and existing customers will be transitioned to it within nine months of its introduction. They will be able to make the move sooner or later, or opt to start by running an internal pilot with a subset of users.
Office 365 is the subscription version of Office, and is licensed per user with each given rights to run it on up to five PCs or Macs, plus up to five mobile devices. Office Web Applications or the conventional full-blown applications can be used as desired, but the gap between them is narrowing.
The suite has a 'touch first' user interface that also supports pen, mouse and keyboard interaction, and includes a reworked rendering engine using DirectX to support animation "to give users the feeling of flow between one application and the next," said O'Donald.
The streamlined UI helps users stay on track. One example is the way the new version allows replying to an email from the preview pane; another is the improved navigation bar. Furthermore, the Ribbon in the web apps more closely resembles that in the full applications.
Other new features and improvements include support for 'track changes' in Office Web Applications, 'touch-ready' mobile sites from SharePoint, SkyDrive Pro (enterprise-grade file sync and sharing), newsfeeds (using Twitter-style @ addressing and hashtags, plus the ability to follow people, documents, sites and tags), and improved BI features.
The new Lync Online supports multi-party HD videoconferencing, as well as federation with Skype for presence, instant messaging, and voice.
Administrators haven't been forgotten by the Office team. An improved Administration Center is easily accessible, and delivers a more useful dashboard that displays service health, planned maintenance notices and more. Service health changes can be pushed to mobile devices, and a range of admin tasks have been simplified, including initial setup, password resets and adding domain names to accounts.
For those concerned with compliance issues, the eDiscovery feature built on SharePoint allows searching and filtering of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync data. Role-based access is provided, so the work doesn't have to fall on the shoulders of IT staff.
Data loss prevention is also included, initially only for email but its scope may be extended over time. DLP in Office 365 uses familiar rules and policy process, and provides users with 'tips' to show what they may be doing wrong (eg, putting a credit card number in an email).
But if you're waiting for Office 365 running in an Australian data centre (the Asia Pacific service currently runs from Singapore and Hong Kong), don't hold your breath: "We don't know anything about it at the moment" said Ben Walters, technical solution specialist.
Visit Gizmodo's TechEd 2012 Newsroom for all the news from the show.
Disclosure: Stephen Withers is attending TechEd 2012 as a guest of Microsoft.