Microsoft indicated today that it is starting to roll out a new Groups collaboration feature to its Office 365 subscribers.
Groups is a social networking feature that's based on Microsoft's Yammer enterprise social networking acquisition. Most subscribers to Office 365 business plans will get the new feature at no extra charge. It's being delivered to Microsoft's "first release" testers initially. It will then arrive over "several months" to other Office 365 subscribers. Microsoft expects to have completed the rollout by year's end.
This rollout cycle, in which first-release testers get the bits about two weeks before other Office 365 subscribers, was explained back in June as part of Microsoft's new roadmap program for Office 365 releases.
Groups works across all Office 365 applications, but the feature is typically accessed through OneDrive for Business, Outlook or the Outlook Web App. Groups is currently supported in Outlook 2013, Outlook 2010 and Outlook 2007 mail clients, along with the Outlook Web App accessed through a Web browser. Microsoft plans to connect Yammer and Lync with the Groups feature in a future Office 365 release.
How Groups Work
Groups users get a list of public groups in Outlook. They can either subscribe to a public group or explore it. It's also possible to create private Groups with restricted membership access. IT pros can manage Groups membership overall via the Office 365 Admin Center.
A person joining a group can communicate using the group's mailbox, which contains short messages from group members. Joining a group will send its conversations back to a personal Outlook inbox, so users can simply reply from there.
It's also possible to share documents with a group. Documents primarily get stored via the group's OneDrive for Business storage system, and they can be either shared within the group or shared externally. For organizations that want it, IT pros can impose "access request" controls on the external sharing, according to Microsoft's Groups info page.
Groups also contain a dedicated calendar that show meeting invitations to members. Users creating an event in a group's calendar will get that information synced back to their own Outlook calendars. Alternatively, users can indicate that they want to add an existing group calendar event to their personal Outlook calendars. Once that's done, the Group event will sync back to the personal calendars.
Organizations with Office 365 or Exchange Online commercial subscriptions will eventually get the Groups feature. Eligible plans include Office 365 Enterprise (E1-E4), Office 365 Business Essentials, Office 365 Business Premium, Office 365 Small Business Premium, Office 365 Midsize Business and Office 365 Kiosk. Also eligible are Office 365 Academic (A2-A4) and Government (G1-G4) plans.
More info about the Office 365 Groups feature can be found at Microsoft's announcement.
The new Groups feature had its debut in March at the Microsoft SharePoint Conference, along with a new Delve social networking app (formerly code-named "Oslo"). Microsoft began its Delve rollout earlier this month with completion expected early next year.
Groups and Delve are both supported by Microsoft's new Office Graph technology, which pulls together information across Office 365 solutions. Microsoft also is planning to add a new video portal capability to its Office 365 services that will let organizations categorize company videos, such as marking them for public access.