Microsoft Promises Frequent Office 365 Roadmap Updates

Frequent updates to cloud software can cause compatibility problems – which is why Microsoft has outlined plans to help your other applications play nicely with Office 365.

Microsoft is ushering in a new era of openness about Office 365, its cloud-based productivity suite. It has promised to stop keeping its customers in the dark about changes to its software to help prevent updates from causing compatibility problems.

"There will be no more keeping the kimono closed. We're going to have a roadmap that we communicate publicly," Jake Zborowski, Microsoft's group product manager for Office 365, tells CIO.com.

In practice, this means that changes "of significance" will be posted on the Office 365 Roadmap website months in advance of their implementation. "The majority of changes will be in SharePoint and Exchange. But there will also be some in Lync, Yammer and the Office client," Zborowski says.

This is in addition to Microsoft's existing policy of providing at least 12 months' notice for major changes such as deprecating API elements or the replacement or removal of an application. That's the case with InfoPath; in January, Microsoft announced that InfoPath will be phased out but supported until 2023.

First Release Gives Office 365 Customers Early Access to Updates

A further flash of what lies beneath comes from the introduction of a program called First Release.

To understand what this does, it's necessary to understand how Microsoft rolls out its Office 365 updates. Rather than update every Office 365 customer at the same time, updates are rolled out successively to different groups of customers over a period of days.

[ More: 7 Things You May Not Know About Microsoft Office ]

As the name suggests, opting into First Release lets customers choose to be in the very first group to receive certain updates. It's not all updates, according to Zborowski, but only a subset of updates for SharePoint and Exchange and probably no more than a "handful" of updates each year. Updates to Lync Online, Exchange Online Protection, Office 365 ProPlus or other related services aren't included in the First Release program at the moment.

"We've built … technology that allows us to 'flight' changes to a particular group of tenants," explains Zborowski.

Customers who don't opt into the First Release program won't start to receive updates for a minimum of two weeks – and sometimes not for as long as a month or two, Zborowski says. (To opt in, Office 365 admins can log into the admin portal and select First Release under service settings, the company said in a June blog post.)

So what's the point of First Release? It's not that clear. All Office 365 updates, including First Release, roll out on a tenant-wide basis, which means customers can't easily sign up a single department or a small group of their users to First Release for testing purposes. However, some large customers have test and development facilities in a different location to their main offices as a separate tenancy, Zborowski points out, so that particular facility could opt into First Release. That would give staff a few weeks to vet and test the Office 365 updates before they're rolled out to the rest of the organization.

It's also of interest to early adopters. "Some customers, particularly small businesses, have fewer concerns, so First Release also provides this group with a way to get updates sooner if they want them," Zborowski adds.

Microsoft expects as few as 2 percent of customers to opt in to First Release initially – although that could rise to as much as 10 percent as other services apart from Exchange and SharePoint are added.

(At its SharePoint Conference 2014, Microsoft also announced another change management process, NDA Preview, which would have given customers willing to sign up to an NDA agreement even more time to preview Office 365 updates and provide feedback to Microsoft. But these plans have changed, Zborowski says. "We found that it wasn't useful and the information we got from the program was not being used by our engineers. The goals were noble, but the NDA Program has been cancelled.")

'Cloud-first' Development Compelled Microsoft to Communicate Office 365 Roadmaps

What's prompted these changes is a fundamental alteration to the way that Office 365 is engineered, Zborowski says. Previously updates were first developed for Microsoft's on-premises Office software and then ported to the cloud-based Office 365. Since February, Microsoft has been building for the cloud first.

"A significant amount of work was needed to achieve this. We have had to change the way we build our software," Zborowski says. "Before, we forked our code, packaged in for on-premises, then figured out how to do the changes in the cloud. Now we no longer branch the code – we enhance the live (Office 365) code that people are running on."

As a result of this change, Microsoft has moved from a model of releasing updates once every three or four months to small, incremental updates every day. "There have been over 100 additions of merit since February," Zborowski says, including the ability for administrators to manage passwords, updates to sharing in email and Office an real-time co-authoring.

Office 365 is Microsoft's fastest ever growing product, according to the company, and organizations already well inclined toward Software as a Service have been natural adopters. But is it possible that Microsoft has seen the rate of adoption slow as this "low-hanging fruit" has now been harvested? Does Microsoft need to offer better change management hand-holding to entice the next tranche of less SaaS-minded companies to switch to Office 365?

That's the view of Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "On the consumer side, Microsoft is doing much better than I had expected, but on the enterprise side, it has probably got all the low-hanging fruit it can," he says. "Now [it's] finally ready to communicate better, and in fact [it's] compelled to."

T.J. Keitt, an analyst at Forrester, disagrees: "This is certainly a way of easing new customers into the world of rapid iteration, but that's not saying that Microsoft has gone as far as it can with early adopters. We're seeing that the market for SaaS is growing in leaps and bounds."

To illustrate this, Keitt quotes Forrester research. In 2011, 56 percent of companies questioned said they were interested in moving to software as a service for collaboration activities. In 2012, this increased to 65 percent; by the end of 2013, this had risen again, to 71 percent.

As for Microsoft, its line is that the new change management processes are a direct result of the way that Office 365 is being developed.

"Ultimately, it's the move to cloud-first development and large numbers of incremental changes that has prompted Microsoft to be more open about its roadmaps," Zborowski says. "In addition to reimagining our engineering process, we have had to reengineer our communications process as well."

T.J. Keitt, an analyst at Forrester, disagrees: "This is certainly a way of easing new customers into the world of rapid iteration, but that's not saying that Microsoft has gone as far as it can with early adopters. We're seeing that the market for SaaS is growing in leaps and bounds."

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