Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Update Challenge: Not Too Fast, Not Too Slow

It's off to the races for many of Microsoft's product teams. After years of delivering new product releases every two to three years, Windows, Office, Visual Studio, and just about every other consumer and business product group at the company is in the midst of trying to remake itself as a leaner, meaner, and more agile fighting machine.

Seemingly overnight, Redmond's product teams are going whole-hog with continuous development, cloud-first deliverables and subscription services. Because of the magic of big data analysis, it's easier than ever for the `Softies to gauge the immediate impact of a new product or feature, which, in turn, makes quicker, staggered rollouts possible.

Some armchair pundits think this attempted agility isn't a big deal. Instead of one big-bang release every three years, just roll out three bite-sized releases every year. Rename "service packs" as "updates" and -- boom -- problem solved, they argue.

Here's what those folks are forgetting: Microsoft has more than 1.4 billion Windows users and multiple hundreds of millions Office users worldwide. There are users of all ages, at all levels of tech know-how and across all economic continuums. Some of them identify as business customers; others are home users first and foremost.

Not all of these users want more releases coming at them more quickly. In fact, some businesses can't digest new versions delivered every two or three years. They often skip new versions of Windows Server or Exchange because of the testing, training and integration work they require.

At the same time, other businesses consider quarterly updates too few. Andy Pisoni, the founder and CTO of Yammer -- now the Microsoft enterprise social-networking arm -- recently told me that weekly updates would likely be appreciated by his customer base. But suggest to most SharePoint administrators that weekly updates are coming soon to a SharePoint farm near them, and most will likely reject that model.

Striking a balance is tricky. The new motto, at least on the Windows client team, is to be "principled, but not stubborn" when responding to customer feedback, as Windows CFO Tami Reller said last month. That means listening to those with opinions across the spectrum, including the extremes, but ultimately making decisions that are right for the majority -- whether it's about the return of the Start button to Windows, or the speed at which new Windows releases should be made available to users.

Right now, some of the Microsoft teams seem to be gravitating toward a cloud/on-premises dividing line as one way to try to keep the rollout pace sane.

The Office team is advising customers who aren't ready for quarterly or monthly updates (which is what the `Softies are now promising for Office 365) to stick to on-premises and private cloud configurations. These customers will get service packs and new versions of Microsoft products delivered to them on a slower schedule. Those who want the latest bells and whistles as soon as they're developed and tested should go cloud, meaning Windows Azure, Office 365, Dynamics CRM Online and so on.

In addition -- with what might be a bit too subtle, yet still important, distinction -- the Office team is using the word "upgrade" to refer to a new version of a service or product, and "update" to refer to new features meant to be added to an existing release. It's not clear whether Windows and other teams are following this same convention. The thinking seems to be that users, even business-centric ones, will be more willing and able to incorporate updates than upgrades at a faster delivery pace.

With Windows "Blue," Office "Gemini" and the quarterly Visual Studio releases, Microsoft is making some big changes in the way it develops, tests and delivers new products. We'll soon see if Microsoft is too far ahead of the majority of its user base -- or still not moving fast enough.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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