Microsoft has announced the South African commercial launch of Microsoft Office 365, the company’s next-generation cloud productivity service for businesses of all sizes.

The company believes the launch can make a major impact on the local SME market by making it easier for thousands of local companies to get and use the same business productivity solutions used by major enterprises.

Depending on user options, Office 365 will cost from as little as R46.50 per user per month.

Microsoft’s Melanie Botha says cloud-based solutions like Office 365 can help businesses lower capital expenditure costs and deliver powerful productivity tools to its users, with appropriate layers of security and compliance.

“Peace of mind is the biggest benefit for SMEs. Knowing that someone else is taking care of everything is great. Knowledge workers enjoy new software features and upgrades as soon as they are available. Costs for the move to Office 365 are predictable and spread over time as operating expenses (opex) instead of capital expenditures (capex), putting a smile on the face of the finance guy,” says Botha.

Botha believes Office 365’s availability on a month-to-month basis will be a boon for SMEs. The subscription includes online versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync to deliver e-mail, document management and unified communication services to business of all sizes. Certain subscription plans also add Office Pro Plus to deliver offline capability in Word, Excel, Outlook and other Office desktop products.

Technology industry analyst Arthur Goldstuck says SMEs and startups have the most to gain from cloud solutions like Office 365, as they do not need to invest heavily in infrastructure. His research suggests that only 9% of South African SMEs are currently using cloud computing in their businesses – but those that do are more profitable than their less tech-savvy counterparts.

“Cloud computing offers more benefits than drawbacks to SMEs, yet a lack of understanding of these benefits means uptake continues to be slow. Despite this, there is a clear edge for those who do make use of it; after all, cloud computing is an enormous cost saver to any business, and cutting costs is a key element of profitability,” says Goldstuck.

The National Small Business Chamber (NSBC) has been one of the early adopters of the solution, which offers users easy access to productivity and collaboration software on a monthly pay-as-you-go basis.

CEO Mike Anderson says the Chamber itself is “happily” running its Microsoft productivity suite from the cloud, and he believes that there will be a greater uptake of the solution once SMEs clearly understand what these solutions can do for them and the costs associated therein.

“For the SME, it’s all about what these solutions can do for me and how they affect my bottom line: they need to know how it can save them time and money and affect their bottom and top lines positively.”

Both adds that Office 365 is suitable for all size businesses, from Enterprise to SMEs, in that it delivers cost-effective, flexible access to enterprise-class solutions whilst accelerating various business benefits like simplified access to information, storage and ROI.

“Moving to the cloud with Office 365 doesn’t require a business to change the way it works, because the service is based on familiar productivity tools people know and trust, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Access and more. Employees get new ways to work together with ease, on virtually any device or mobile phone, and businesses get the reliability, security and IT controls they need in the cloud, even without a dedicated IT staff.”

Both says the current healthy state of South African bandwidth means the timing of Office 365 is ideal. “South Africa’s broadband provision has improved dramatically in recent years. Office 365 also enables economical use of bandwidth resources, leveraging innovation in the latest version of Office platform.”