Microsoft is almost doubling the number of countries and languages the beta version of its Office 365 cloud collaboration and communication suite is available in.
In addition, the company is opening an application and services storefront for the suite called Office 365 Marketplace. At time of writing, 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.
"This really takes Office 365 and cloud productivity to a whole new level through the expansion of the beta program," said Betsy Webb, general manager of Microsoft's Online Services division.
The Office 365 program is now expected to encompass hundreds of thousands of organisations with millions of end users, she said.
"This is a tremendous on-ramp to our general availability release which will be later this year," she said.
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.
The Office 365 Marketplace offers users a catalogue of partner applications and services, but transactions occur on partner websites, if users decide to buy an application or a service engagement, Webb said.
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 (£3.69) per user per month.
Options for larger organisations include a version that comes with the full-featured Office 2010 Professional Plus on a subscription basis for $24 (£14.75) per user per month, along with the other suite components.
Microsoft is also offering larger organisations a bare-bones option with only basic email for employees that don't need the other software, starting as low as $2 (£1.22) 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.
With the beta program's expansion, Office 365 is now available in the UK and the US, as well as Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxemburg, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Trinidad & Tobago.
The Office 365 website and interface is available in the following languages: Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.