Many businesses are curious about Microsoft Office 365 but don't realize that they can get a 30-day free trial of the service with no strings attached. It's easy to sign up, but there are some things you need to know along the way.
The process starts at Office365.com where you won't be able to miss the big FREE TRIAL button. Clicking that button takes you to your first choice. There are two offerings, the Small business plan (P1) and the Midsize business and enterprise plan (E3). There is a comparison chart to view between the plans.
Tucked away on the bottom of the page there is also a downloadable, more complete comparison (PDF).
So this first issue, P1 or E3, is actually a big one for reasons that are not obvious. For a complete discussion of the differences in these plans check out this article on Office365answers.com.
For most people, particularly since the price went down recently on the Office 365 E plans, you will want the E3 plan for the trial. Don't worry about the $20 per person price for the E3 plan, as you can switch to the less expensive E1 plan ($8 per month) at the end of the trial very easily.
However, if you choose the P1 plan for the free trial, you cannot convert to an E plan after the 30 days. That's the non-obvious reason I mentioned earlier. So, it's important to get started with the right plan.
When you click on the Free Trial button, you are shown a page that looks like most signup pages. Microsoft has streamlined this process considerably. In fact, the signup process for Office 365 stands out as one of Microsoft's most intuitive and easy to follow procedures I've seen. You should be done with the entire process in a matter of minutes.
Starting at the top
- Country or region: Your account, including your email, files, user accounts, etc. are hosted in a specific data center depending on this setting. Once set, it cannot be changed. Microsoft has data centers in the US, Ireland, and other locations. Your data will be placed as close as it can be, based on the where your company resides. You can conduct a speed test to the Office 365 data center to get an idea of the performance.
- Organization Language: Selects the language used for the Office 365 Portal.
- Contact: Then you have normal contact information such as Name, Company Name, Address, etc.
- An important note about the Phone Number: The phone number you provide is sometimes used by Microsoft support to contact you. If you file a support ticket, Microsoft may call to follow up and if they don't have a phone number, this is where they go to look.
- A really important note about the email address: Be sure you use a monitored email address and not just one you create for the trial. This email address is used for important notifications about your service. People have put in unmonitored email addresses here and then had problems when their credit cards expired as they were not receiving notifications about difficulties in paying the fees.
- New Domain Name: Usually you want to put your company name here. Enter whatever you like and click -Check Availability. If the name is unique in the Microsoft Office 365 data centers worldwide, it will be accepted.
What this entry does is create a "base" domain for you that is
.onmicrosoft.com so, for example, if I enter Contoso here and it's available, the base domain for the company becomes contoso.onmicrosoft.com. When you add users, their Office 365 login names and email addresses will be @contoso.onmicrosoft.com.
So why is Microsoft giving you an onmicrosoft.com domain? After all, most companies want to use their own domain name for email. The reason for this is simple. By issuing you a unique, known good domain name, Microsoft can provision your services immediately. Then you can add your own domain later which requires, of course, that you step through a validation process that proves you own the domain. So you can add a custom domain later. The base domain is permanent and cannot be changed.
- Next you provide a "User ID: This is your very first user account. An account will be created in Office 365 by this name and made a service administrator. You will automatically be placed into the administration portal and then you're off and running.
It can take about five minutes for the services to create your email box, SharePoint site, and Lync Online user account. You'll be able to tell as there will be spinning icons next to the service descriptions in the portal. When those stop, you can immediately start to use SharePoint Online, and Outlook Web App.
The next step would be to follow the instructions on the Download page to install the Office 365 setup client, and Lync 2010.
To guide you through what to do, Microsoft has created a Trial Guide for both the E plan (written by yours truly) and the P1 plan. These guides take you step by step through each of the services to give you good idea of how they work.