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Office 365 Roadmap Program Promises Clarity on Software Updates

Microsoft is attempting to make its Office 365 software release changes more visible and predictable for organizations.

The concept is called "Office 365 for business public roadmap" and consists of a couple of parts, according to Microsoft's announcement today. First, there's a notification system where the software changes will be announced in advance via Office 365's Message Center. Second, Microsoft plans to roll out a new advance testing opt-in program, called "First Release." Microsoft claims that First Release is not a beta testing program since the features released for testing will have already been vetted across approximately 200,000 seats beforehand as part of its internal "dogfood" testing. In addition, Microsoft describes First Release changes as bringing "big changes" to the product's capabilities.

In addition to Message Center, Microsoft also describes its Office 365 software changes at a portal page here. The portal shows changes that have been launched, as well as those to come, and even cancelled releases.

The new business public roadmap model is aimed at better communicating Microsoft's faster software release cadence that was announced a year ago. The faster releases stem from Microsoft's practice of developing its software releases against its cloud computing infrastructure first, along with some agile development practices inspired by Microsoft's Yammer acquisition about two years ago. However, for IT pros, the faster release pace has supplanted Microsoft's more familiar three-year software release cycle. It's just been less predictable, and perhaps more problematic, for organizations tasked with testing software releases in their environments.

Microsoft's announcement contended that the new faster release cycle has been an exciting ride for IT pros, giving them "the ability to consume change in small chunks." But independent experts such as Wes Miller, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, offered an alternative perspective:

A glimpse of the roadmap program was provided at the Microsoft Exchange Conference back in late March. According to a Microsoft video produced then, Microsoft is carrying out a "continuous innovation cycle" that will deliver software changes in small increments. There will be "updates," "disruptive changes" and "configuration changes" as part of this new cycle. The updates will be changes to existing scenarios, but they won't add new capabilities, so it's not expected to break existing customizations, according to Microsoft's video. For the disruptive changes (such as a new operating system release or a new browser) and the configuration changes, Microsoft plans to provide a one-year advance notification to its customers.

The most complete notifications will arrive via the Message Center used for managing Office 365 accounts. It will provide a view of the changes a few months in advance for "new features, enhancements and major updates," according to Microsoft's announcement. However, the roadmap program "will not capture every change," the announcement added.

Message Center users will be part of the "standard release group" by default. That means that they will receive updates about two weeks or later than the First Release testers. Microsoft is excluding "Lync Online, Exchange Online Protection and Office 365 ProPlus" services from its First Release testing program initially, according to the announcement.

Organizations that want to be part of the First Release testing program have to opt into it via Message Center's service settings. The option to join the First Release program may already be available for some subscribers, but it will be rolled out more broadly over the next week. The first update for First Release testers is expected to arrive "later this summer."

Microsoft's roadmap program is rolling out to commercial and academic Office 365 subscribers. It doesn't apply to "Office 365 Government Community Cloud for U.S. Government customers, Office 365 operated by 21Vianet or Office 365 Dedicated/ITAR customers," the announcement explained.

Microsoft will host a Yammer "YamJam" Q&A session on Tuesday, June 24 at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time to answer questions about the roadmap program. The sign-up is via a Yammer Office 365 Technical Network page here.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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