Office 365 is in a state of constant evolution, so it’s not at all surprising that Microsoft would attempt to capture some of that work in a new plan (literally, a menu of options sold to customers). At this week’s Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) in Orlando, we got the news that the old E4 plan has been replaced as the “premium Office 365 Enterprise Suite” by E5.
According to Microsoft, the new plan “will encompass the core value of the modern productivity and collaboration capabilities Office 365 provides today, as well as significant new capabilities including Skype for Business services for real-time communication such as Cloud PBX and PSTN Conferencing, new analytics features like Power BI Pro and Delve Organizational Analytics, and new advanced security features such as eDiscovery, Customer Lockbox, Data Loss Protection (DLP) and Safe Attachments.”
Phew! That’s some mouthful, which then begs the question as to just what the E5 plan actually means.
The bottom line is that E5 is Microsoft’s top-of-the-range Office 365 plan that includes literally every piece of functionality available in the service. This includes some features that have been around for a while, some that are brand new, and some that are not yet available, which is why E5 won’t be available for a while (“before the end of the calendar year” 2015). Like many announcements made at major conferences, the news about E5 serves as a heads-up for customers (and in this case, the partners that Microsoft hopes will sell the new plan to customers).
The soon-to-be-replaced E4 plan currently costs $22/user/month (in the U.S.). No indication has yet been provided as to how much Microsoft will charge for E5. However, given that E5 includes Advanced Threat Protection, which costs an additional $2/user/month and the Equivo Zoom eDiscovery capabilities (see a description here), which costs a little more (depending on the customer) and Power BI Pro (which supersedes the existing Power BI for Office 365 service and costs $9.99/month). Power BI is available as an add-on for the E3 and E4 plans and although there’s no doubt that it is a very capable analytics package, it’s probably not a feature that everyone will want to use. In any case, Power BI Pro is included in E5.
With all this new functionality, it’s logical to assume that Microsoft will bump the E5 price up to a range between $24-$26. On the other hand, competitive pressures might moderate any raise to perhaps $24. Microsoft isn’t saying much on the subject for now, perhaps because they want to gauge customer reaction to the new plan. Or maybe it's because they want to see how the recent increases for Office 365 prices go down within the user base.
Getting back to the list of functionality scheduled for E5, the Skype for Business Online pieces are interesting because they allow customers to move off on-premises Lync servers and still be able to do things like host broadcast meetings for up to 10,000 attendees and dial-into meetings using a landline or mobile phone. These features are currently in preview and their roll-out will be in the U.S. first followed by other markets (some negotiation is necessary with local telcos). However, the features are not unique to E5 as apparently they will be available to all Office 365 enterprise plans from E1 upward.
Data Loss Prevention (DLP) has been available for Exchange Online ever since Office 365 switched over to the Exchange 2013 code base in early 2014. The mention in the E5 announcement is puzzling, unless Microsoft means the DLP support now being introduced for SharePoint and OneDrive for Business. However, DLP is also included in the current E3 plan, so this is not an E5 exclusive either.
Customer Lockbox is an useful feature as it allows tenants more precise control over access to their data when Microsoft investigates problems. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of controlled access to private data that I would expect to see in all enterprise plans. Perhaps Microsoft will make Customer Lockbox available in the other enterprise plans in time.
The last piece is Delve Organizational Analytics. Delve is now generally available across Office 365 to leverage the signals gathered about user activity in the Office Graph database. I think of Delve in two ways. First, it highlights information that it believes to be relevant to users based on everything that’s happening across the service – what files are being created, who is working on what, who is sharing what with whom, and so on. Second, it’s search-on-steroids for Office 365.
The Analytics piece is a different beast. As demonstrated at the Ignite conference, it can tell you how effective users are in their work life by highlighting facts such as how much time they are spending in meetings, whether they are focused on internal or external contacts, the information flow between departments, and what an individual’s work-life balance might be. However, this kind of thing sounds very much like big brother oversight and caused quite a lot of negative comment at Ignite, especially among European attendees, who reflected the greater protection for personal privacy that exists in Europe.
To be fair to Delve Organizational Analytics, we have to see it working in practice to judge the results and its impact. It is quite possible that the examples chosen by Microsoft do not demonstrate the true value that can be extracted by the software. What’s for sure is that the Office Graph database harvests a massive amount of information about user activity drawn from all aspects of Office 365. The question is whether you want to explore and use that data in a more proactive manner.
All software suites include features that are ultra-useful to customers and some that don’t quite meet that mark. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (or the fingers of the user). If Microsoft doesn’t increase the price for E5 to much more over E4, I think there’s enough new functionality in this plan to make it attractive to customers. Time will tell.
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