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Office 365 ProPlus To Get Major Policy Changes in September

Microsoft announced big changes this week on how its Office products will get updated, starting in September.

The announcement described a new policy direction for Office 365 ProPlus products, which is the suite of Office applications that come with various Office 365 subscription plans. Office 365 ProPlus products get updated via Microsoft's "click-to-run" streaming technology. They typically are always up to date with the latest feature updates, unlike Microsoft's other "boxed" Office products that get sold under so-called "perpetual licensing." There's also a third type of product, namely, Office Professional Plus 2016, which is sold under volume licensing plans, where the upgrades get installed via .MSI files.

A Microsoft spokesperson affirmed that Office Professional Plus 2016 support isn't affected by the announcement.

"Office Professional Plus 2016 follows our traditional fixed support lifecycle policy," the spokesperson explained via e-mail. "Customers can expect monthly security updates but no new feature updates."

Microsoft's latest Office 365 ProPlus guidance, announced on Thursday, has shifted from its best-practices advice for Office 365 ProPlus deployments that was outlined in January. While Office 365 ProPlus users might like the coming changes, organizations using Office with traditional perpetual licensing could be sorely disappointed.

Office Perpetual-License Changes
Microsoft's announcement described the new policy as affecting Office 365 ProPlus versions. However, the biggest effects of the new policy change will happen for organizations that use perpetual-license Office products.

Perpetual-license Office users whose products fall out of "mainstream support" won't have a connection to Office 365 services, starting on Oct. 13, 2020, according to Microsoft's newly announced policy. (Mainstream support is Microsoft's designation for the first five-year phase of Microsoft's total 10-year lifecycle product support policy.)

Essentially, all perpetual-license Office products currently released won't have connections to Office 365 services on Oct. 13, 2020. For instance, the perpetual-license Microsoft Office 2016 product will lose mainstream support on the very same date, namely Oct. 13, 2020. Consequently, older perpetual-license Office products, such as Microsoft Office 2013 Service Pack 1 and Microsoft Office 2010 Service Pack 2, will suffer the same disconnected fate on that date.

The consequences of losing Office 365 connections are that perpetual-license Office products won't be able to connect with Office 365 services such as "Outlook, OneDrive for Business and Skype for Business clients" on Oct. 13, 2020. That notion is explained in a table in this Microsoft Tech Community post.

Exactly how Office 365 services would get cut off for those products wasn't explained. Microsoft could implement some sort of blocking mechanism, speculated Rob Helm, managing vice president at independent consultancy Directions on Microsoft.

"The [perpetual-license] Office suites will no longer be eligible for Microsoft product support as clients to Office 365, and some unspecified technical changes to Office 365 will block some kinds of interaction between some parts of the Office suites and some Office 365 services," Helm explained via e-mail today. "This could be similar to the way that Outlook 2007 will stop working with Exchange Online this October."

Microsoft's announcement indicated that it was giving "more than three years' notice" on the policy change "to give IT time to plan and budget for this change." During that time interval, perpetual-license products, such as Office 2016, Office 2013 and Office 2010, "will still be able to connect to Office 365 services."

The policy change isn't exactly spelling an end for perpetual-license Office products.

"Microsoft will deliver another version of Office perpetual client," a Microsoft spokesperson indicated via e-mail. "There are no details to share on timing at this point."

It might be thought that Microsoft is obligated to offer alternatives for users of its business products when it decides to end product functionality. However, such thinking is just a common misunderstanding about Microsoft's support policies, according to Helm, whose firm specializes in tracking Microsoft's licensing and support issues.

"When Microsoft promises support for a software or service version, it doesn't promise to make it work with new versions of other technologies," Helm said. "For example, Windows 7 will be supported through 2020, but Microsoft won't support it on some new processors and chipsets that came out this year."

Such product lifecycle support dilemmas are starting to emerge more acutely today following Microsoft's shift to faster software release cycles, Helm noted.

"This [issue of support] didn't use to be a problem because new software versions came out so rarely, and Microsoft devoted a lot to interoperability testing between software versions," he explained. "But with its move to faster release rhythms, its new focus on online services, and the accompanying scaling back of testing, that's all changing. What we are telling [Directions on Microsoft] members is that the useful life of a version is likely to be much shorter than the supported life."

Update Cycle Consolidation
Microsoft also announced that it was consolidating its update releases across Office 365 ProPlus, Windows 10 and System Center Configuration Manager products by making the policies and update deliveries more consistent. The rationale for the change is to make things easier for Secure Productive Enterprise customers.

"This change will make planning and managing updates for both Office and Windows easier for customers using the Secure Productive Enterprise," Microsoft's announcement indicated.

Secure Productive Enterprise is Microsoft new upper-tier licensing bundle of products that came into effect last year.

With the coming new policy, Microsoft plans to release two major feature updates per year for Office 365 ProPlus and Windows 10, starting in September of this year. These two feature update deliveries will occur in March and September of each year for both products.

Microsoft also saw fit to rename its Office 365 ProPlus channel names with the new policy change. (A "channel" is Microsoft's way of designating the type of update that gets released). Here's a breakdown of those coming channel name changes:

  • The "current channel," which is a monthly test release, will be called the "monthly channel"
  • The "first release for deferred channel," which is another test version that gets released every four months, will be called the "semi-annual channel (pilot)"
  • The "deferred channel," which is a production-ready version that's released four months later, will be called the "semi-annual channel (broad)"

The announcement stated that Microsoft made the name changes because "we heard your feedback" to make the terms "more descriptive."

Microsoft lists the upcoming schedule for the new Office 365 ProPlus releases, starting on Sept. 12, 2017, in its "Overview of the Upcoming Changes to Office 365 ProPlus Update Management" support document. However, a note in that document states that "all dates are approximate and not all dates are listed." There is another caveat, too, as IT pros will have less testing time in June.

"Be aware that there will only be three months, instead of four months, to do enterprise pilots and application validation on the version of First Release for Deferred Channel that is scheduled to be released on June 13, 2017," the support document indicated.

Office 365 ProPlus now will get as much as 18 months of support before organizations must adopt the next upgrade or risk running unsupported software. This policy change will give IT pros a little more leeway on when updates happen.

"We will extend the support period for Office 365 ProPlus semi-annual updates from 12 to 18 months (starting from first release) so IT professionals can choose to update once or twice a year," Microsoft's announcement explained.

New Migration Tools
Microsoft also promised that it would be delivering new tools to help organizations transition to Office 365 ProPlus. These organizations typically have to assess if their use of certain programs and customizations with Office will make such moves problematic or not. To that end, Microsoft announced four solutions for checking application compatibility issues.

One of those solutions is a series of upgrade assessment tools for checking compatibility with Office add-ins or Visual Basic for Applications additions. These assessment tools are currently offered in a "limited preview," according to Microsoft's announcement. The other three solutions seem to be provided by Microsoft directly. The announcement indicated that Microsoft will perform application compatibility testing for organizations. It will provide monitoring services that will show "usage and stability of apps and add-ins." Lastly, Microsoft is promising to provide improved tracking and problem resolution services, with its partners providing remediation support.

However, it seems these newly announced tools and services aren't available now, or are just available at the preview stage. Here's how a Microsoft Tech Community post described the tools and their availability:

Over the next year, we will roll out tools to catalogue your organization's add-ins, assess the status of VBA applications and deliver an improved support for 64-bit VBA. Customers tell us about the importance of application compatibility in their ProPlus upgrade plans and these tools make planning and execution easier. We are releasing them in limited preview now. Reach out to us at ReadyForOffice@microsoft.com to be part of the preview program.

The new tools, as listed in the Microsoft Tech Community post, will get released "later in 2017," although Microsoft currently is "accepting a limited number of enterprises into a pilot program." Additionally, Microsoft is planning to publish a list of tools from other software vendors that can be used to support Office 365 ProPlus migrations. Microsoft also has an "Office 365 ProPlus testing lab" specifically designed to test independent software vendor solutions, according to the Microsoft spokesperson.

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