I don't begrudge Microsoft for finally getting on board yesterday with a more modern service-based version of its Office productivity suite to counter the obvious growth and ease of use that Google docs and smaller competitors have brought to market.

But here I am this morning reading about the Office 365 story through Google News (ironically) and in 408 news articles posted so far, every other one rushes "cloud" to the headline, as in "Microsoft's Cloud Strategy," or "Cloud based Office 365."

How often do you hear about the "Google Cloud" or the "Amazon Cloud" or the "E-Bay Cloud?" Not much, because they figure you're more interested in their products and services. They all use cloud architecture, but Amazon sells Amazon Web Services, Google has gmail and documents and spreadsheets, and E-Bay is just a handy Web-based service for buying and selling stuff. Salesforce.com talks about its cloud more than Larry Ellison at Oracle likes to, but Salesforce is based on a hosted application service platform.  

There's the term! We used to get these kinds of services from hosted application service providers, but ASP must have turned dirty or gotten confused with other definitions for ASP or everybody just forgot it. I'm just saying, separate what it is you want to buy from the notion that you're cool only if you jump on the cloud bandwagon.

It's really not confusing. Cloud architecture summons massive processing and storage to let you scale endlessly, adding nodes of computing as you need them. It's elegant and it is forever going to change the way we look at the cost and scale of computing. A cloud arises from a physical chunk or network of machinery that you can build to own or rent and use to support many things: applications, platforms, extra storage, extra CPU - and services.

Whatever it is behind the curtains, Office 365 is first and foremost a subscription service that happens to be served up the new way instead of from a dedicated Web server. So judge it on the merits of cost and deferred capital, infrastructure and maintenance, the same way you'd thoughtfully consider leasing a car.

You do want to peek behind the curtain to see what your service provider is supporting you with, but your decision is going to hinge on your service-level agreement and the remedies it gives you, not your inside knowledge of single versus multi-tenant architecture.

Though it's late to market, Office 365 supports a global enterprise standard product and stands to make Microsoft a good chunk of money with a long tail of monthly fees. For now they're certainly going to continue selling many more standalone licenses than subscriptions, but the service model will grow over time. Plus, it helps Microsoft fend off the software piracy it is always talking about by controlling service at the source.

I'm not here to argue for or against Google, Microsoft, Zoho or anybody else, so don't call me a shill. I'm just saying, when you're buying any service, stick with the value proposition.

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