How Microsoft is speeding up the Office trains

How Microsoft is speeding up the Office trains

Summary: Microsoft's Office team has an ambitious roadmap ahead of it. But can a team of 5,000 engineers move from delivering product releases every 2 to 3 years to every quarter, or even faster?


Microsoft's Office team has run like clockwork for at least the past decade. The 5,000 or so Office engineers delivered a new version of Office every 2.5 to 3 years without fail.


But these days, two or three years between new product releases is considered an eternity. While it's all well and good for the trains to run on time, the trains need to run a lot faster. In addition, these days, the different Office client, server and services trains don't all need to be on the same schedule.

Microsoft's Office team is well aware of the new reality. The team is believed to be on track to release the first upgrade to Office 2013 with the Office Blue release, codenamed "Gemini," this fall — which will be almost exactly a year since the company released to manufacturing its most recent Office client product, Office 2013. But even before that, the Office unit is looking to update the subscription versions of its Office client and server products with new features around June or July 2013.

(A quick but important note on Microsoft's Office parlance: "upgrades" are new versions of an existing product or service; "updates" are collections of new features designed to be added to an existing product or service.)

I've heard from a number of users and developers who are doubtful that Microsoft can pull off this ambitious schedule. Can a division as set in its ways as Office turn things around in such a relatively short window?

Microsoft quietly laid much of the groundwork for this more rapid delivery schedule months, if not years, ago, company officials say.

"We've been gearing up for this (cadence shift) for two years," said Jeff Teper, Corporate Vice President, Office Servers and Services.

The team started readying for this shift by putting in place new management, planning and engineering processes.

In the past, everyone on the Office team used to be on the same schedule. There were three internal Office milestones, followed by three Office betas, leading up to Microsoft shipping a new version, Teper said. He noted that the team really had this rhythm down. With Office 2013, he said, "we RTM'd on the exact date (10/11/12) that we picked two years before. Things were extremely predictable."

These days, however, different teams within Office are on different schedules. While some products like Outlook and Exchange are likely to be linked in terms of deliverables because of their interdependencies, other teams are not. Office RT and anti-spam for Exchange, for example, have no need to be on the exact same schedule.

That said, on the Office 365/services side of the house, Microsoft is already reorganized in a way that Exchange Online and SharePoint Online are designed and built together. (The Lync Server/Online team is now part of the Skype division, but still works closely with this integrated Office 365 unit.)

"We think of Exchange, SharePoint and Yammer now as one product," said Teper. "This makes decision-making a lot faster."

Teper said the Office team expects to launch a number of new features — some in Office itself, and some designed to connect with Windows Azure, Microsoft Dynamics and Windows Intune — by June or July. Not too surprisingly, he declined to divulge specifics. But further Yammer integration into SharePoint is likely part of this set of updates.

The challenge: Not too fast, not too slow


One challenge the Office unit (and most of the rest of Microsoft) has around product timing is that its business customers have gotten accustomed to a gradual refresh pace and have planned rollouts and purchases around it. So while Microsoft's product teams are working to speed up the delivery trains, if they go too fast, they'll risk leaving business users sitting at the station.

"Part of our challenge is that consumers and IT couldn't digest new technology releases more than every couple of years," Teper said. "That's why people were skipping releases and adopting every second or third new version of Office or Exchange."

With the cloud, users can and are often interested in getting their hands on new features more quickly. When Microsoft launched Office 365 in June 2011, its cloud services were playing catch-up to the features it already had made available in the 2010 releases of SharePoint, Exchange and Lync. Microsoft improved its speed a bit with Office 2013 by releasing its servers and its cloud services simultaneously. (The rollout of its services to existing users is still behind, however, with the latest versions of SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online still in the midst of being delivered to most users.)

Going forward, however, the team has committed to making new features available to those using the subscription/cloud versions of its Office and Office server releases ahead of when they'd be available to those running on-premises/local versions of Office client and servers. (It also has committed to delivering updates for its on-premises software more quickly, too, but so far hasn't made a public commitment on timing on this front.)

The public promise is Office services will be released before Office servers and "some features may be only available in the service," Teper said.

"We'd rather be ahead of our customers than behind them. The idea is the cloud is where you get your best experience," Teper added. The Microsoft guidance is those customers not ready or willing to move to this more rapid delivery cadence may want to stick with the on-premises versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Lync and Office for now.

The reality is the Office team is surprisingly ahead of its public commitment here. Though Microsoft hasn't widely advertised the fact, it has been providing quarterly, if not monthly updates to its Office services for a while now. The idea was to keep this fact relatively low key, giving Microsoft a chance to build its cloud-development muscle, Teper said.

Exchange and SharePoint (both on-premises and online) are now one team inside the company, Teper said. But that doesn't mean Microsoft plans to keep the local and cloud versions of these servers in lockstep. It's not feasible or in most business users' interests to ship a new version of server software every quarter, he said. Many business users aren't even sure if they want Microsoft to include new features (or fixes only) in service packs for these products.  

For now, the Office team plans to continue to release service packs for its Office servers at least yearly. These SPs will include few, if any, new features. Cumulative updates to the Office servers are on track for delivery every two months and will not include any new features.

Yammer: When quarterly isn't fast enough

While the Office team is working to prevent alienation of business customers with its new faster delivery model, the Yammer team is influencing Office from the other side to become even more agile.


Originally, when Microsoft purchased enterprise social-networking vendor Yammer in June 2012, the plan was to allow Yammer to operate largely independently and separately from the rest of Office.

"At the time of the acquisition, many assumed we needed to stay standalone and remain independent," recalled Adam Pisoni, Yammer's Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer. "But we started reaching out to Office. We saw we were both driving toward one product."

"We caught Microsoft at the perfect moment," Pisoni said. "There was a lot of open-mindedness." The Office team was wrapping up work on the Wave 15/Office 2013 products and was thinking even more deeply about how to increase speed while maintaining scale.

While the Office team was starting to deliver quarterly releases of services in the cloud, the Yammer team was of the opinion they could and should accelerate beyond that pace in the cloud.

"You need to be there faster than that for some audiences. Sometimes, you need even weekly releases," Pisoni said. 

The key is to convince customers that speed doesn't have to come at the expense of quality. How does Yammer — and Microsoft — plan to pull off that feat? 

All will be answered in Part 2 of this post, coming on April 24. Also coming in Part 2: What's Azure (and Corporate VP Scott Guthrie) got to do with all this? The short answer: Plenty.

Topics: Cloud, Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Social Enterprise


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • The big problem is ...

    ... the law of diminishing returns.
    I have a small brain (compared to the 5000-man development team).
    It doesn't matter how many niceties you add on to the suite ... I'm only after intuitive, killer features.
    And I don't want to keep paying more and more for less and less, capiche?
    • agree

      on that one.
    • I understand what you're trying to say....

      But don't you know u can always skip a version or two and wait until the killer feature you want shows up?
    • I understand what you're trying to say....

      But don't you know u can always skip a version or two and wait until the killer feature you want shows up?
      • Not any more

        Guess you haven't noticed the shift from ADOBE and MSFT to monthly subscriptions.
        Like so many inattentive mere consumers ... you lose :-(
        Sorry to disturb your sleep.

        [ZDNET blip: I'm not user 'anonymous' - I've registered. Only 7 years ago mind.]
        • Yes I've noticed

          But that is if u want to take on the subscription without having a on premise fallback. If you go all cloud you must expect certain things that could happen. I mean there are benefits and draw backs but I would think you would know which one works best for you and in what situation. If you can't figure that out then I don't know how you help yourself.
          • The cloud is the best solution for everyone

            Anything important that I have I keep in the cloud. If it's not too important I may not bother wasting my cloud space with it. If you're a loner geek then sure work off-line nerd but the vast majority of people are normal and wouldn't waste time, which could be spent socializing, on a computer which is not connected to the internet.
            Tim Jordan
          • For you, yes. Everyone? No

            I think you're at one end of a spectrum, and drop the ball when you extrapolate this to "everyone".

            Firstly, not everyone rates "being social" as what they most want to do with their time, or highest in importance.

            Secondly, we don't all have connectivity that makes frequent uploads perform well enough at a tolerable cost.

            Thirdly, we don't all trust cloud vendors to be more reliable than how we manage our own systems.

            When you put those together, you find more than just "loner geeks" who would rather do stuff that is quite possible to do offline, than socialize. You also find folks who don't want to pay some ISP to act as toll booth between them and their stuff, and folks who don't want to end up like this guy...


            "Trust me, I'm a cloud vendor'
          • Not so

            The Cloud may be best for you, but not me. I bought several external HD cases (IDE/SATA capable) while they were on sale and had a rebate. I now have 8 in use - plus 4 internal drives (two computers). Two 1.5T HDs are used solely for backup of all the other drives. I don't have to worry about Internet access being down or some thrill-seaker hacking into the Cloud storage and destroying all the data possible before being caught. If I need it longer, then it is put on CD or DVD to free up space. That works for me, but not necessarily for all other computer users - such as yourself.

            "If I'm not part of Everyone, then I must be Nobody. That's OK - Nobody's perfect."
          • re: Not so

            Same here ... I have a Synology Nas (8tb ... with my own cloud software on it) which is backed up regularly.

            I have no need for any cloud offereings out there ... I just don't trust anyone with my data .... And if/when my internet connection goes down, I can still work. I also don't need anything beyond Office 2007.

            Call me old fashioned if you want, but I will never to subscribe to any software as a service. It might seem like a good idea to the bean counters at Microsoft (or Adobe) but I see no benefits in it for me. All I see is an extra bill and more annoyance.
          • re: The cloud is the best solution for everyone

            "Anything important that I have I keep in the cloud."

            Your a disaster waiting to happen ... it takes only one hacker and *poof* you're data is either gone or stolen ... on top of that you're paying for the privilege!

            I prefer to be a loner geek than being a gulllible idiot that lost his data.


          I AM NOT A NUMBER...

          I AM...Arm A. Geddon
          Arm A. Geddon
          • I see my user name now but before how long it goes to "anonymous?"

            An hour? Two?
            Arm A. Geddon
          • Correction

            I see my user name now but how long will it be before it goes to "anonymous?"
            Arm A. Geddon
    • I think that you may have missed the point....

      The On-line variant costs the same amount (i.e., Annual Subscription), so you are actually going to get more-and-more, for the same price over during that Subscription period. As to the On-premises version, it sounds like MJ said that they would release the new functionality as Service Packs (SP's), which Microsoft has traditionally not charged for.

      If I read the article correctly, Microsoft is planning to add new features to the product at a more rapid pace, but it doesn't necessarily mean at a higher cost. I see this as a "being competitive" strategy, and trying to keep the competition from catching up by delivering more capabilities/features more rapidly, so that the competitors are forced to always play catch up to Office.

      Caveat: I think that's what MJ is saying in summary.
      • I think that you may have missed the point....

        TG I only paid $9.95 for 360 to see what crapware MS has put out for 2013.
        The skins looked better in 1995! (and third party could change them too).
        MS has become Big Brother; "You will like what we tell you to like".
        • Wave 15

          Tsunami is coming - brace for impact :)
    • I agree and...

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. To me the upgrades to Office are really downgrades. It really seems like Microsoft with both Office and Windows just moves things around, renames menus and blesses it an upgrade. This isn't an "upgrade" and just frustrates the user.

      That being said, putting develop money into a desktop version of anything at this point is like pouring money down a rat hole. Everything is moving to the cloud and they should concentrate exclusively on their cloud version of Office. They desperately need to give the cloud Office user real-time collaboration with colleagues like Google Docs offers. The "sync" strategy is so old school. This dead strategy seems to be kept alive by the desktop versions.

      Additionally, they need API's for their cloud products. Using Google's APIs with Javascript, HTML and CSS you're able to create fairly powerful applications for nothing more than some mindshare.

      Microsoft is missing the boat because it's run by an old school bureaucrat who wishes this Internet fad would just go away and everything go back to the desktop, C# and MSHTML. Meanwhile, the door is left wide open for Google.
      Dave Lalande
    • different people need different things

      as MS adds features they (probably) hope to find more customers.
      • in that case

        Aliens in monkeyworlds or lost civilizations underwater - their new market.