Microsoft to tweak its Office 365 feature rollout and disclosure processes

Microsoft is promising to be more transparent with major feature updates coming to Office 365, and is adding an opt-in 'First Release' program for customers to selectively test them internally.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft's new faster rollout cadence is becoming a fact of life across more and more of its software and services.

As the pace quickens, Microsoft officials are laboring to find the middle ground between too fast and too slow in delivering new features and fixes. Some teams in Microsoft's Applications and Services Group — the home of Office and Office 365 — consider monthly updates to be too slow. (Here's looking at you, Yammer.) Others believe monthly updates are OK for some Office 365 users, but definitely a no-no for Office client or server customers.

A couple of years ago, Microsoft officials created Office 365 wikis to let Office 365 users know about new features the company made available to those with Office 365 small-business and enterprise plans. The feature lists were published in hindsight, however, often at the end of the month when the new features were released.

In the next few months, the Office 365 team is going to try something new. The team will be making available "a public place where you can get information on service updates to help manage the faster paced release cycles of the cloud." Update: In case this isn't clear, the new disclosure and update processes in this post are for the business versions (not the home/consumer ones) of Office 365.


 A couple of slides from a Microsoft TechEd 2014 presentation contrast the current Office 365 update and disclosure policies (above) and the coming ones (below).


The new informational updates from Microsoft will focus on new and updated functionality that will be coming in the "near term," meaning 30 to 90 days, along with some longer-term information. Microsoft will provide "high-level details, including name, description, status," officials said. Brand-new products/features, such as Office Mobile for iPhone, for example, will continue to be revealed publicly upon release. 

Microsoft officials first disclosed plans about the company's new change-management plans at the SharePoint 2014 conference in March. They reiterated those plans at TechEd 2014 earlier this month. There are a number of write-ups worth reading about these disclosures, including this one from Microsoft Most Valuable Professional Chris O'Brien and this recent post from Windows IT Pro's Tony Redmond.

According to Microsoft officials, the new Office 365 feature information, published to a public-facing Web site, will replace the non-disclosure briefings that Microsoft and partners have provided to customers around what to expect on the Office 365 futures front.

Microsoft also plans to launch "soon" a new opt-in program available to all Office 365 customers that will provide first early access to "select major end user feature updates." These updates will be "fully supported, vetted (and) documented" end-user-facing service updates for Exchange and SharePoint.

Using this opt-in program, known as "First Release," administrators can select a subset of users to get access to new SharePoint and Exchange end-user updates a minimum of two weeks before they start rolling out across the customer base. According to O'Brien's post there also will be an additional NDA Preview program, as well. O'Brien said Microsoft plans to roll out features early to a subset of users via the NDA Preview program (which sounds like the company's current Technology Adoption Program), but across an entire tenancy with First Release. 

The new disclosure plans don't change Microsoft's current promise to provide Online Services users with a minimum of 12 months prior notification before customers are required to accept any changes in service that are deemed "disruptive." Disruptive in this case means change where "customers are required to take action in order to avoid significant degradation to the normal operation of the Online Service." (The notice period doesn't apply to security-related changes or updates.)

I asked Microsoft officials late last week when Office 365 users should expect to see the futures roadmap information and was told "soon." I'd think the company also will provide additional details about the "First Release" program for early access to major new features real soon now, as well.

Editorial standards