Foley on Microsoft

How Fast Can Microsoft's Trains Go Without a Derailment?

As Redmond shifts focus to a quicker release cadence, the challenge is bringing enterprise customers on board.

What a difference a year makes. When I argued Microsoft's new need for speed in my May 2013 column, few believed Microsoft really could or would deliver Windows, Windows Phone and Office 365 updates at the much-accelerated rate the 'Softies were promising.

Today, annual updates of Windows are now sounding ridiculously slow. The developer team is rolling out near-quarterly updates of Visual Studio and even more frequent updates of Team Foundation Service and Visual Studio Online. The Microsoft engineers at Yammer are now committing to -- and actually delivering -- mobile app updates every week. The word "cadence" is part of more than 50 of the job postings on the Microsoft career site at latest count.

The wheels were in motion for this speedier schedule before Satya Nadella was appointed CEO in February. Insiders tell me the July 2013 "One Microsoft" reorg is what really freed up teams inside the company to change the long-established plan/develop/ship pattern of product delivery inside the company.

"In Bing, nothing ships," Microsoft Research Chief Peter Lee told me recently. That quip refers to the fact that the Bing team is often simultaneously "test flighting" more than 50 to 60 different technologies, and sometimes delivers new elements to users more than once a day. The Microsoft Azure team is moving toward a similar model, using telemetry data to tweak services that are rolled out on a nearly every-three-week basis.

Lee said Microsoft is working on bringing this same mindset to Office. The Office 365 team is already doing near-monthly updates to the hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync servers, but are making far fewer regular tweaks to the Office desktop apps for Windows. But reworked mobile-first versions of Office, such as Office Online (the Webified versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote) and Office for iPad are updated faster and more regularly. I'd assume Microsoft is planning to follow suit with the "Gemini" Metro-style Office suite that's still under development once it debuts later this year.

Continuous development and automatic delivery seem like fairly natural complements to cloud services and mobile apps. All hail "cloud first/mobile first." But what about locally deployed, on-premises business apps?

Microsoft officials, until recently, have wavered as to the company's plans for speeding up the delivery pace for things such as Windows client and server, Exchange, SQL Server, and other business products. But earlier this year, Microsoft alarmed more than a few IT shops by drawing a line in the deployment sand with the update release for Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2. After initially deciding to require deployment of the update, rolled out in early April, by mid-May, Microsoft officials softened their stance and gave IT pros until August to deploy the update in order to continue to receive fixes and patches moving forward.

What's good for consumers isn't necessarily good for business users -- at least not until business users are able and willing to make over their IT practices regarding how and when app testing and deployment happens. And Microsoft's track record with botched updates and service packs hasn't made the company any friends on this front. The Windows team is grappling with this. Rumor has it the company might change the way it updates Windows based on which SKU a user has. By the time Windows 9 hits in the early part of 2015, those running a "Modern" SKU on certain Windows tablets and phones would have their OSes updated regularly and automatically, while business users would have more control over when and how Microsoft updates their OSes.

Striking the balance in rolling out updates and new versions is tough. It's especially tough for a company with a substantial part of its user base in the enterprise. It'll be interesting to see in another year what kinds of new policies and controls Microsoft ends up putting in place to try to make all its constituents happy, or at least happier.

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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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