Microsoft is re-branding Office 365. Just give up on understanding it.

Shared communication is one of the underpinnings of civilization. It sets humans apart from animals.

Microsoft is engaged in a long-term effort to prevent us from being able to understand each other. I don’t know why. The company doesn’t appear to be run by a super-villain, but that would fit the facts.

I’ve been making fun of Microsoft for many years for its hapless efforts to brand its products. It’s easy, kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, and they deserve it. Microsoft changes names so quickly that they barely have time to register. It uses the same name to describe many things, making communication impossible. When someone tells me they use “Outlook,” they might as well tell me they use Gubbish for mail – Microsoft has used the word “Outlook” for so many different things that it is meaningless.

Still, the latest announcement from Microsoft stands out. It is perhaps the most Microsoft rebranding they’ve ever done. It’s so awful that there is a certain purity to it. It takes a firm stand AGAINST the idea that we can ever have a shared understanding of what we’re talking about.

You have some extra time, right? Let’s stroll down memory lane before we get to the details of how Microsoft is throwing out everything you think you know about Office 365.

But first, a summary.


Microsoft 365 rebranding - so complicated it makes rocket scientists cry

Microsoft is renaming some of its subscription plans from “Office 365” to “Microsoft 365.”

The details are so complicated that it makes rocket scientists cry.

Oooh, you’re so mean! Has Microsoft had some issues with names in the past?

If you’re old, like me, you remember a simpler time when we went to CompUSA and bought Word and Excel in a box labeled “Office.” Bill Gates introduced Microsoft Office way back in 1988. Word and Excel were the “Office programs.” Our computers ran Windows; we used the Office programs. Easy to understand, seems almost quaint in hindsight.

Things began to go off the rails in the early 2000s when Microsoft started to forget that names matter.

Think about OneDrive, which has probably suffered as much branding abuse as any Microsoft service. It started life as Windows Live Folders, then went through constant name changes as it evolved through Windows Live SkyDrive and SkyDrive and finally became OneDrive. Separately Microsoft also released Windows Live Sync, which was rebranded over time as Live Mesh, Windows Live FolderShare, and Windows Live Mesh – similar to OneDrive in many ways but run by a different part of the company. Then Microsoft took a completely different business service, SharePoint Workspace, and renamed it OneDrive for Business, but most of the time it was just labeled OneDrive, as if Microsoft was running a cruel experiment to test the limits of customer confusion.

There’s the horror of Outlook. Outlook is a desktop program for Windows computers. It is also webmail for business, a completely different webmail for individuals, an email address, a mobile app for iPhones, a slightly different mobile app for Android, a slightly different tablet-sized app for iPads, a desktop program for Macs, a floor wax, and a dessert topping. Microsoft literally had to release a visual aid as the only way to identify any of ten different versions of Outlook you were using – and those were only the desktop and web versions.

Microsoft launched Office 365 in 2011, and in its first incarnation, it was still comprehensible: it was a way for businesses to subscribe to cloud services. It wasn’t great that Microsoft had two different divisions handling two different types of logins, but we could at least understand a “Microsoft account” for personal affairs, and an “Office 365 account” for business matters.

Then came the fateful day in 2013 when Microsoft introduced new consumer subscriptions and labeled them with the same “Office 365” name. Suddenly an “Office 365” account wasn’t just a business account and a “Microsoft” account wasn’t just for individuals. Microsoft’s own websites and blogs and announcements struggled to describe its own products. Words had no meaning anymore.

The result in the last few years is that there is no way to describe Microsoft’s dueling accounts. We battle to this day with all the variations on the horrible login screen pictured above, asking us to pick between a “work or school account” and a “personal account,” as if we have a clue what the significance is of that choice. The most popular article I’ve ever written is an attempt to explain the difference between the two types of Microsoft accounts, now four years old and still turning up in Google searches by desperate, confused people.

And now Microsoft has decided that “Office 365” is passé and “Microsoft 365” will ignite our passions. But not by simply swapping one term for another! No, the only way to make a change like that is to make it as confusing as possible.

Changing “Office 365” to “Microsoft 365” with maximum absurdity

Office 365 to Microsoft 365 - Premium is Standard, Standard is Premium

Effective April 21, Microsoft will change the names of its subscription products for small and medium businesses. It’s simple!

  • Premium is Standard
  • Business is Premium.
  • Programs are Apps.
  • War is Peace.
  • Freedom is Slavery.
  • We have always been at war with Eastasia.

It’s just small and medium businesses that suffer.

Individuals don’t have to worry about name changes. Yes, the names of consumer subscriptions are changing to Microsoft 365. And yes, even here Microsoft can’t just choose continuity, as the “Office 365 Home” plan is renamed “Microsoft 365 Family,” which is better why? But at least consumers only have a single set of Microsoft login credentials, and they know they’re getting the Office programs and have a vague idea that there might be some other benefits, and that’s clear enough.

Microsoft is not changing the names of enterprise plans, but it wouldn’t matter if they did – enterprise IT departments take care of the licenses and set up the computers, and employees don’t have to know anything about the plans.

Small and medium businesses, though – they have a crazy notion that they ought to know what they’re paying for. I’ve spent many hours explaining Office 365 plans to clients, how some plans include a mailbox, and some plans include the Office programs, and some plans include a mailbox AND the Office programs, not to mention the Office 365 ProPlus plans that are only the Office programs but they’re really expensive for reasons that I can’t explain.

Microsoft 365 name changes

It’s been a mess, but now, just when people were starting to get it, Microsoft is going to change the names because it’s developed a schoolgirl crush on the term “Microsoft 365.” It’s going to switch up descriptive words like “Standard” and “Basic” and “Premium” by writing them on index cards and throwing them in the air. And it’s going to rename the Office programs as “Microsoft 365 Apps” because it enjoys treating us as the subjects of a science fair experiment to see how far we can be pushed.

Mary Jo Foley reported Microsoft’s explanation:

“Officials also claimed the name change will help simplify things. ‘This new approach to naming our products and the use of the Microsoft 365 brand is designed to help customers quickly find the plan they need – whether an enterprise, SMB or consumer plan,’ a spokesperson said.”

I can neither confirm nor deny that the picture below shows the Microsoft spokesperson immediately after saying that the new names will “simplify things.”

Microsoft spokesperson explaining that the new Microsoft 365 names will simplify things.

You don’t have to do anything. Microsoft has either promised or threatened that the changes will happen automatically. And hey, in the big picture, it’s just some name changes, not a big deal compared to the whole world falling apart.

But it makes me glad I’m on the path to retirement, because I’ve spent twenty years trying to translate Microsoft-speak for clients and the thought of starting over yet again makes me want to lie down. Hang on, I’m already lying down with my head under the pillow – I read the headlines and got on Twitter today. Well, Microsoft makes me curl into a tighter fetal position. Happy Microsoft 365, everybody!

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