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Microsoft's Wave of Office, Server Product Releases Brings Flood of Questions

Microsoft recently, and unexpectedly, released to manufacturing the 2013 wave of almost all of its collaboration and productivity products. Office, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync and its cloud productivity suite Office 365 version 2013 were all released on Oct. 11, 2012, prompting many development team members to finally pronounce publicly that they had been targeting "10/11/12 for 2013" for a long time.

This release wave presents some interesting points to consider and questions to think about. Let's take a look at this wave of products on the heels of the RTM release, and examine some of the issues that are emerging for CIOs and other IT leaders.

Office 2013 Looks a Lot Different Than Its Predecessors

Office 2007 broke with its menu-driven past and introduced the ribbon, and Office 2010 flattened out some but still kept many of the visual cues users have become accustomed to. Office 2013, on the other hand, is Metro-ized, meaning that it is largely colorless and relies a lot on black-on-white text and icons with just small pops of color.

Analysis: Microsoft Office 2013: Best New Features for the Enterprise

The initial experience of getting started when using Office 2013 is somewhat surprising; many users think they mistakenly have a "black and white" mode turned on. In Outlook, for example, the familiar Mail, Calendar, Contacts and Tasks have been moved to a single string of words across the bottom, and most (if not all) of the Ribbon tabs in Office use ALL CAPS-similar to the new release of Visual Studio 2012 does as well.

Only time will tell if users will come to accept this look. Indeed, in the same way Windows 8 grew on me, the new Office might grow on me as well. Keep in mind, though, that your users will absolutely notice the difference upon the upgrade, so it might be wise to think about training and how you might communicate to your users if you are an early-adopter organization.

Are These Products Truly Release Quality?

Put another way, are they "gold master" quality that will let you go months without a necessary update? It's a fair question to ask.

There is a common saying among Exchange administrators: "Exchange ain't done 'till Service Pack 1." Catchy, isn't it? It is, however, a truism that has proven relevant time and again. There are already anecdotal reports that key functionality that clients may be used to using in previous versions is missing in the initial RTM build of Exchange. Those who know are currently under a gag order imposed by Microsoft that will expire in the near term. One such person tells me, "I personally won't be recommending anyone but greenfield installs go to Exchange 2013 RTM&It is missing functionality that you may depend upon." A released product missing important functionality that was present in previous editions that will come in a later update? Really?

This is an interesting question, particularly because Windows 8 has gone through a similar pattern. An update of more than 170 MB was released weeks after the initial Windows 8 RTM back in August, but just before general availability in mid-October. This update purportedly fixed issues relating to performance, battery life and compatibility and has been hailed by many as essentially a service pack. In fact, one could argue Windows 8 Service Pack 1 is the current version-despite the fact that, as a retail customer, you cannot yet buy Windows 8 in any form.

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Finally, consider the complexity of all these different products. Office is a huge suite of technology. Exchange is mission-critical for many organizations. SharePoint is more of a platform than a server product itself and hosts all sorts of workloads. Is it possible that every single one of these products was finished on the same day at the same time as all of its other brethren? Is it possible they were all finished in the same month?

I for one have a hard time believing that. Couple that question with the others posed here and several others emerge:

  • Are we looking into a future where RTM is an artificial marketing term more than it is a reflection of truly release-quality code?
  • Why is Microsoft "releasing" products to "manufacturing" and then updating them significantly before they're even available?
  • If a product needs performance and reliability updates to key features before it even reaches the public, was it truly "released" before those updates were made? If so, then how does this affect the enterprise?
  • How can we test on code that is constantly being updated?
  • How can we ensure compatibility with gold master releases or service packs if the very definitions of these milestones are being altered?

I pose these questions for discussion. I'm not saying by any means the end of the world is here, nor am I saying that Microsoft is doing anything wrong. However, software today is different than software in the 1990s and 2000s, and the fact that Microsoft is attempting to change delivery patterns and timing on such a wide swath of its products certainly calls for some introspection.

Microsoft Server Products Tied to the Cloud

Dependency on the cloud should not shock you: Hopefully you have been paying attention to Microsoft's conversations with you about being "all in" with the cloud. Just look at Office for a prime example: For the first time, Office licenses will be sold by subscription directly to consumers; they will download, install and manage it all from office.com.

News: Microsoft Debuts Cloud App Model for Office, SharePoint

By default, SharePoint 2013 runs newly created workflow services on Windows Azure, and you have to install the old Windows Workflow engine on SharePoint 2013 instances in order to run previously used workflows.

Exchange 2013 contains a number of wizards and features to help you manage a mail service deployment split between a cloud service and on-premises servers running Exchange. This setup is known as a hybrid mail deployment, and one would imagine it works especially well with Office 365. Additionally, you manage Exchange 2013 over the web. There are no more Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-ins to deal with-only a web browser. Even the shiny new Skype service, which is Microsoft's own as a result of its 2011 acquisition, is now integrated with Lync-and, given how it communicates, Skype is absolutely a cloud service.

If you are uncomfortable with the cloud, then you will feel uncomfortable with this wave of products-and Windows 8, for that matter. If your organization has had its head in the sand and just prefers not to think about the cloud at all, then perhaps the 2013 wave is not for you. But make no mistake: these products absolutely signify that the cloud is coming to you.

Even the fact that Microsoft wants to refer to this software as "the new Office" and "the new Exchange" simply tell you that 1) Microsoft is trying again to mimic Apple's style and 2) Microsoft is interested in pointing you to software subscriptions. What better way to bring in subscription revenue than to provide regular monthly service-and, perhaps, access to cloud services.

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him via email and on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

Read more about windows in CIO's Windows Drilldown.


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