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Microsoft Promises Frequent Office 365 Roadmap Updates

Paul Rubens | July 3, 2014
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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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