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 two and a half to three 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, the various Office client, server, and services trains don't all need to be on the same schedule these days.
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 then, the Office unit is looking to update the subscription versions of its Office client and server products with new features around June or July of this year.
(A quick but important note on Microsoft's Office parlance: "Upgrades" are new versions of an existing product or service, while "updates" are collections of new features designed to be added to an existing product or serve.)
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 of 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 interdependence, 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 already is 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 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 if Microsoft's product teams 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 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 that 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 service packs 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 alienating 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 added. "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 Tuesday. Also coming in Part 2: What's Azure (and Corporate VP Scott Guthrie) got to do with all this? The short answer: Plenty.
This story originally appeared as "How Microsoft is speeding up the Office trains" on ZDNet.