Much like just about everyone else, Microsoft has spent a lot of time of late talking about the importance of the cloud in the future of both computing and of Microsoft. Despite a lot of talk, however, Microsoft's entry into web-based software has been rather haphazard. With their recent announcement of Office 365, their strategy for cloud computing seems to be coming in to focus.
A lot of the previous web-software released and revamped by Microsoft has been focused on consumer products (such as Hotmail for email, SkyDrive for file storage, and Office Webapps for document editing). Personally, I haven't found those products to bring much to the table, and would be surprised if they end up turning into major players in the rapidly evolving consumer web application market. Where Microsoft has been surprisingly quiet is in the enterprise realm where they remain a dominant force and where the benefits of cloud computing can be particularly strong. Office 365 looks like a foray of moving their core enterprise offerings (including Office, Exchange, Sharepoint, and Lync) into a web-enabled format.
To be honest, this move has been a long time coming considering that most of Microsoft's enterprise software is delivered to end users as a self-hosted solution. As such, Microsoft is essentially taking on a few of the responsibilities that previously rested on local IT support (e.g. for setting up and managing Exchange and Sharepoint). Given the natural fit, it remains to be seen if Office 365 will bring any real innovation into the products, or if it will just be making their current enterprise offerings easier and cheaper for small companies to deploy. Towards that point, the minimum Office 365 plans look like they'll start at $6 per month per user, which is a little more expensive than similar offerings from Google Apps but not too far off.
In addition to online versions of Exchange, Sharepoint, and Lync, Office 365 integrates the desktop versions of Office with the Office Webapps that were released earlier this year. Considering that this functionality is already included in newer versions of Office, this basically seems like a marketing point, rather than a new product. Furthermore, the $6 per month plan only includes the webapps (and not desktop versions), which it describes as letting you "review and make light edits to documents directly from a browser." Overall, this statement seems to reflect Microsoft's view of online software, as a companion piece to the "real" software that you've already installed on your desktop (Outlook, Office, etc).
I obviously can't pass judgement on Office 365 until it is ready for primetime (it's currently in beta, which actually means something when Microsoft says it), but the early signs are that this continued push into the cloud is less about Microsoft revolutionizing and innovating in web-based software, and is instead about Microsoft being in the cloud at all. For a lot of small businesses, that can still be a valuable thing, but eventually, it feels like Office will need to do more than just hold it's (admittedly substantial) ground. In any event, if your interested in checking out Office 365 for your small business, sign up for the beta and let us know how it goes.
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