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Microsoft broadens Office 365 beta, launches app store

Store features about 100 applications and 400 professional services

Microsoft is expanding the beta testing program of its Office 365 cloud collaboration and communication suite, almost doubling the number of countries and languages it's available in, the company said on Monday.

In addition, Microsoft is opening an application and services storefront for the suite called Office 365 Marketplace. As of Monday, it features about 100 applications and 400 professional services from developers and channel partners.

Office 365, which includes hosted versions of Office, SharePoint, Exchange and Lync, can now be tried out by users in 38 countries and its interface is available in 17 languages.

So far, about 70 percent of the beta program participants have been small businesses, so Microsoft is holding a contest called Ready for Work, where small businesses can share stories about themselves. Five winners will receive a $50,000 marketing package, Office 365 and a day's work from a Microsoft executive.

Office 365 is the next version of Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) and it's scheduled for general release this year.

Unlike BPOS, Office 365 comes with Office Web Apps, the hosted version of the Office 2010 productivity suite. For companies with fewer than 25 employees, Office 365 will be priced at $6 per user per month.

Options for larger organizations include a version that comes with the full-featured Office 2010 Professional Plus on a subscription basis for $24 per user per month, along with the other suite components.

Microsoft is also offering larger organizations a bare-bones option with only basic e-mail for employees that don't need the other software, starting as low as $2 per user per month.

Eventually, Office 365 will also include Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online. Microsoft is also readying an Office 365 version for educational institutions as an upgrade to the Live@edu hosted collaboration and communication suite.

While BPOS' hosted applications are based on the 2007 versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Office Communications Server, the Office 365 components are based on the 2010 editions of those applications. Lync is the new name for Office Communications Server.

With Office 365, the market for hosted collaboration and communications suites is bound to heat up even more, especially the rivalry between Microsoft and Google with its Google Apps suite. Other competitors in this market include IBM-Lotus, Cisco, Novell, Jive, Socialtext and Box.net.


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