Microsoft reveals Office 365 roadmap, offers opt-in previews

Gives current and prospective customers a better idea of what's coming

Microsoft on Thursday delivered on a promise made earlier this year to provide a roadmap to future Office 365 enhancements and additions, something both current and potential customers have been clamoring for, an analyst said.

"Of the key concerns [about Office 365] in large organizations [is] when will, and how will, Office 365 be upgraded?" Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said Thursday. "[They] want to know when the technology will arrive, both to be aware and to prepare users."

Yesterday, Microsoft published a rough roadmap to the Office 365 editions aimed at businesses and educational institutions, not those targeting consumers, like Office 365 Home or Office 365 Personal, or government. The road map was not time stamped -- in other words Microsoft has not promised when it will add what to the rent-not-buy software program -- but lists features already implemented; those that have reached some, but not all, customers; additions still in the development stage; and ones that have been scrubbed.

Microsoft first began talking about changing what early information it would share with customers, and how it would do that, in March at the SharePoint Conference. As Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet noted last month, Microsoft elaborated on those plans at TechEd in mid-May.

Miller, who is one of the Directions analysts who conduct the research firm's licensing training sessions -- dubbed Boot Camps -- summarized the kind of questions and concerns he'd heard from enterprise IT decision makers, procurement professionals, software asset managers and others about Office 365 at those events.

Other top concerns, said Miller, were about in-house compliance auditing and long-term price lock-in.

Some of the people at the training sessions represented companies already running Office 365; others worked for organizations that had not yet decided to shift to the cloud and wanted more information before they pulled the trigger.

Both groups wanted a peek into Office 365's future. "Prospective customers were also looking for a road map," Miller said -- not just those who already use the subscription service.

Microsoft has acknowledged, both in a Thursday blog by Jake Zborowski, a group product manager, and previously, that as it has accelerated the tempo of Office 365 changes, it must also provide more information than it has historically. "We decided to take the next step and communicate with you in a new way, via a public roadmap, to make sure that as many people as possible know about the exciting improvements we're bringing to the service," Zborowski said.

Also on Thursday, Microsoft began rolling out a new program, First Release, that lets Office 365 commercial and academic customers opt in to a limited sneak peek of upcoming updates.

Miller characterized First Release as a customer preview, rather than a beta, because the features offered early will be fully-baked, not in-progress. "Customers who have gone to Office 365 wanted insights into what's coming," Miller said, of oft-asked-questions at Directions' licensing sessions. "Particularly if there's an interface change, they wanted time to alert their users."

First Release will deliver a subset of the new features to volunteers, giving them at least a two-week head start over the general population, Zborowski said. Administrators can opt-in from their Office 365 control panel, but they cannot restrict the upcoming features to a subset of their users. It's all or nothing.

Miller applauded Microsoft's openness, but cautioned Office 365 customers at the same time. "If I had one point of concern it is that it's not a conclusive roadmap, and customers shouldn't view it as a complete picture of the roadmap or release of Office 365 services and technology," Miller said.

"It's hard to say what pushed Microsoft to do this, but I'd say it was a reflection of two things," Miller continued. "First, customers want more insights into what's going on, and second, [Microsoft] is becoming attuned to how this faster release process works, so it's getting better on planning."

Microsoft has posted the Office 365 roadmap on its website.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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