Is Office 365 the best thing that's ever happened to Linux?

28 Mar 2012

Currently, my office PC is running the betas of both Windows 8 and Ubuntu 12.04 -- a situation that is doubtless pushing Dennis Publishing's IT manager a little closer to his well deserved nervous breakdown.

Yesterday, I spent the day working solely in Ubuntu 12.04 to see how the OS is progressing. I'm a big fan of the tweaks made to the Unity interface; the drop-down killing Head Up Display is tinged with brilliance if currently a little sluggish; and the Ubuntu Software Store is maturing nicely. However, there's one thing I've always missed when working in Ubuntu: Outlook. Despite the protestations of the Linux faithful, neither Evolution nor Thunderbird -- the two default mail clients in recent versions of Ubuntu -- are a patch on Outlook when it comes to dealing with an Exchange Server.

The only other option was to worm in via Outlook Web Access, but because there's no Linux version of Internet Explorer, you were forced to use the horribly rudimentary stripped-down version, which was spitefully designed to punish people who had the barefaced cheek to run Chrome or Firefox. The old version of Outlook Web Access made Lotus Notes look cutting edge: even basic tasks such as creating a meeting were akin to a colonoscopy, and you could literally make a cup of tea in the time it took to perform a basic keyword search of your inbox.

We now have access to the sparkly new Outlook Web App, which is like trading in a Datsun Cherry for a BMW 5 Series with alloy wheels

Recently, however, the aforementioned Dennis IT manager upgraded us to Office 365. This means we now have access to the sparkly new Outlook Web App, which is like trading in a Datsun Cherry for a BMW 5 Series with alloy wheels.

It's not as sophisticated as Outlook 2010, but it's not far short. Performance is excellent: there's no more waiting 15 seconds for an email to open, search returns results a second or two after you hit Enter, and you can open attachments without having to right-click and save the file to a folder. You know, all the things other webmail clients (such as Gmail and even Microsoft's Hotmail) have been doing since the dawn of the 21st century. It looks good too: the interface is attractive and uncluttered, although strangely doesn't use the Ribbon interface that is now found in all of Microsoft's other Office apps, both client and web.

As Jon Honeyball noted in a recent column on Office 365, the Outlook Web App might well be the only email client many people need. The only problem I had is that it doesn't automatically fetch new email using Chrome in Ubuntu in the same way that it does when accessed via the same browser in Windows. Why, I simply do not know.

While I was experimenting, I decided to give the other Office Web Apps another go, having not used them in anger for the best part of a year. I had a 3,000 word feature to edit, so cut and paste it into the Word Web App and set about the task. The last time I tried the online version of Word, performance was a little sluggish when dealing with hefty documents. There was a slight lag between typing and seeing the words (some of them spelt correctly) appearing on screen, which was just irritating enough to put me off. Now, performance appears much smoother, even if the feature set is rudimentary compared to rivals such as Zoho. The Word Web App's spellcheck, for example, is an unusable mess.

Nevertheless, I could quite happily edit the 3,000 word feature, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't get any of the odd formatting quirks that sometimes occur when you attempt to open a LibreOffice file in Word.

In short, Office 365 has made it much more practical for me to spend my working days in Ubuntu. I suspect that's not a line you're going to be seeing on Microsoft marketing material anytime soon, however...

Read our Complete Guide to Office 365 here

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