A lot of us, me included, turn to Wiley's For Dummies series of books when we want a clear and simple explanation of some complex topic that we don't quite understand yet. For Dummies books are created to educate beginners and give them confidence and they are extremely popular as a result. Microsoft Office 365 for Dummies was written to explain a new, sophisticated product that's designed to bring Microsoft Office within reach of more organizations. And of course the more sophisticated the product, the more clear the explanation needs to be. Does this book do the job? Let's find out in this review.
What is Microsoft Office 365, anyway?
Over the years, Microsoft Office has become the "gold standard" productivity app for business, school, and home. But there is no getting around the fact that legal copies of Microsoft Office are expensive, and if they're to be used at a business or school, the cost of site licenses can put the purchase completely out of reach.
Acknowledging this, Microsoft has created Microsoft Office 365, which is "cloud based" and available by monthly subscription. This brings the cost down within reach of a lot more organizations (Microsoft Office 365 is designed with groups rather than with individual users in mind) and each group can subscribe to just the features necessary to get the job done.
Explaining the cloud
Since "cloud computing" is a concept many people might not know a lot about yet, the book dives right in and tries to explain it. Unfortunately, the authors don't use the usual breezy For Dummies writing style, preferring something that comes across as modified lawyer-speak. From the first chapter:
"The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet. In very simplistic terms, cloud computing means that your applications or software, data, and computing needs are accessed, stored, and occur over the Internet or the cloud."
The whole section Defining Cloud Computing is like that. Um... "accessed, stored, and occur"? Instead of a brisk and simple explanation that you're going to be using software that's available on the Internet rather than installed on your own computer, the authors go on for pages, never using one word where 53 will do. Not off to a good start here, guys.
There's also an explanation of the history of cloud computing and the service models that are available, followed by a bunch of information for developers, none of which seemed relevant to understanding how to use Microsoft Office 365. If it had to be included, it would have been better put in an Appendix. One more excerpt to show you what you're up against:
"In a private cloud implementation, you still enjoy the benefits of public cloud computing, namely: self-service, scalability, and elasticity. In addition, your dedicated resources allow more control and customization regardless of whether your implementation exists on-premises or off-premises."
Someone who understands how to write clear, straightforward everyday English could have made serious money hiring themselves out as an editor and proofreader on this book. And I haven't even mentioned all the typographical errors. Apparently the typesetters' space bar was out for repairs that day. Even the tables explaining the various subscription plans were confusing and full of jargon.
Moving right along... or not.
With the chapter Moving to the Office 365 Cloud, the authors finally start explaining things the way they should have from the get-go, but there are still sections that make it look like they got paid by the word, and the apparent lack of an editor is still glaring. To give you some fingernails-on-the-blackboard examples from this chapter: Can I do my job easier or not? Uh, no, fellas, it's Can I do my job more easily or not. Really. Another benefit of accessing centrally located data is that you always have a single source of the truth. I think "single sources of the truth" are usually found in religious teachings, not Internet based computing. If you have ever met an IT person, you might have generalized one thing about them. They are control freaks.
And they expect us to keep reading after that? If I hadn't been reading Microsoft Office 365 for Dummies to review it, it would have gone right back to the bookstore, or into the library book drop, at that point.
Explaining the apps... or not.
The first chapter on Exchange Online starts off by going into a lot of detail about how most people who use Outlook really don't care about the Exchange server, as long as it does its job of delivering email. Which is very likely true. But then they go into a lot of detail about how having the Exchange server online is a great idea, and about the different kinds of deployment options (again) and why people who use Microsoft Office 365 can get their Outlook mail from pretty much anywhere. If people really don't care, why take up space with all that? You have to move along to the next chapter before they start giving you the details of how to use Outlook's new features, and those explanations are cursory at best.
The section on SharePoint Online starts off with the social-networking features, which aren't even available unless your organization subscribes to the Enterprise Plan. And describing the My Site feature of SharePoint Online as "Facebook for the workplace" is not likely to encourage employers to include it in their subscription. The section on Team Site talks about using it for collaboration and says the authors are sure it's the most widely used feature of the software. Then they go back to the technobabble: Your Office 365 subscription automatically provisions a default team site for your organization. "Provisions"? There are brief explanations of the file naming requirements, restoring previous versions of documents (if, as they describe it, versioning is turned on), using team calendars and sharing Team Sites with "outside partners." Then there are sections that talk about creating an intranet and a "press release subsite," but if an organization has subscribed to the Enterprise Plan it's a pretty good bet they've got some of those "control freaks" (I still can't believe the authors said that) to set that all up, and they're not going to be reading Microsoft Office 365 for Dummies for instructions on how to do it.
For some reason the document library, slide library, tags & notes and document sets are referred to as SharePoint Scenarios. A library is a scenario? Sure it is. They refer to search functionality and configurable refiners and use the term "onboarding employees" as their example. No technobabble-to-English glossary is included.
The remaining chapters cover the Office Web Apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) in the same wordy, overly technical, and definitely-not-For-Dummies fashion. Since the Office Web Apps are apparently not much different from their desktop Microsoft Office 2010 equivalents, a book that covers Microsoft Office 2010 in detail should supply most people with nearly everything they need to know. See the reviews we recommend at the bottom of this article. Those are better books about Microsoft Office 2010.
There's a final section that gives details on how an organization can determine if their equipment meets the hardware requirements, and what needs to be done to subscribe to Microsoft Office 365 and maintain it. But wouldn't that also be the job of those "control freaks" in the IT department?
There's more, but why bother?
I really did my best to read this book thoroughly to give it an honest review, but as it turned out, honesty compels me to say that I just could not plow my way through more than halfway before I gave up and started just skimming to see what was there. The writing is dismal, the explanations are either overkill or skimpy, and the authors clearly have no idea of their target audience. I think this book would end up confusing a new user far more than it would educate. It's not worth it.
One of the reasons I, like many people, have always appreciated the For Dummies series (and I have bought a lot of those books over the years) is their consistent writing style and excellent editorial oversight. Ordinarily the books are focused on explaining things for the new user, have a clear style and a lighthearted tone, and the pages are definitely not riddled with typographical mistakes. I don't know how Microsoft Office 365 for Dummies made it past the usually outstanding editorial staff at Wiley in the sad shape it's in. I wouldn't even recommend checking it out of the library because you'd be throwing it right back in the book drop with all deliberate speed.