On June 28 it will be a year since the formal launch of Office 365 in New York. I guess that we’ve learned a lot since. When they brief the press, Microsoft likes to discuss the 50-odd enhancements that they’ve apparently made since launch and the fact that Office 365 is now available in 88 languages and 32 markets around the world. All of this is good. My take on the year is as follows.
First, there’s no doubt that Microsoft has learned an awful lot about how to run a reliable cloud service that millions of “regular” users depend on in a very public sense. By this I mean that when Office 365 experiences a failure, people tend to become very agitated because they lose access to email (in particular). The same kind of reaction is experienced when Gmail has a glitch. I think calmer reactions happen when cloud services that are more IT-centric (think of Azure or Amazon Web Services) run into difficulties as the IT professionals that build on top of these services understand that computers and networks have problems from time to time. Thankfully, Microsoft hasn’t experienced any major Office 365 outage since the initial problems in August and September 2011. I still think that these problems were a result of initial growing pains as the system settled down. Hopefully the trend will continue and Office 365 will remain reliable for the foreseeable future.
Second, although Microsoft has been successful in deploying application updates into their Office 365 datacenters without disrupting users, I think that they’ll run into some tougher challenges when the time comes to move users to the Office 2013 wave of products, especially Exchange 2013. This is because all indications are that the user interface for applications will change to align with the “Metro” style. The experience of the past is that UI updates are painful for users. Think about when Office 2010 introduced the ribbon… Now think of how millions of Outlook Web App (OWA) users who connect to Office 365 mailboxes might feel when their well-known UI morphs to take on a new persona. Large organizations will prepare for the changeover by telling their users what to expect and having the help desk work up processes to help people understand how to use the new interfaces. Smaller organizations might be surprised and even a tad confused when the changeover happens. We’ll see. The fact remains that Office 365 is heading into a period of its first big platform change so interesting times await.
On the other hand, I think that the changeover to Office 2013 will probably bring some better browser-based administration tools to relieve the current mismatch of interfaces and capabilities across Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync. Time will tell.
Third, I think there’s still some confusion in the market about Office 365 plans. Microsoft has done their best to help customers understand the available plans and to navigate through the different offerings, but I can’t help still feeling that there are too many options in the Office 365 catalog and that some rationalization and simplification might help. In passing, it’s worth noting that the prices for some Office 365 plans fell during the last year by between 13% and 20%, which is always a good thing. On the other hand, Microsoft failed to reduce the price of its entry-level Plan P, which was regrettable.
Fourth, it’s been good (and appropriate) to see the level of investment made by Microsoft in interoperability and other capabilities to link the on-premises and cloud platforms. The biggest splash during the year was the introduction of the Hybrid Configuration Wizard (HCW) in Exchange 2010 SP2 as this automates a lot of manual twiddling that administrators had to do previously to make fundamental sharing like free/busy lookups function. Other tools have also been updated or introduced like the Remote Connectivity Analyzer (RCA) and the Office Configuration Analyzer (OCAT). All signs that the cloud ecosystem is maturing and building out in a reasonable manner.
Last, although it can still take a long time (or even too long) for a company to move from on-premises to Office 365 (largely because of a continuing lack of cross-platform migration and interoperability expertise), I think the fact that Office 365 now supports tens of millions of mailboxes indicates that Microsoft is having success in moving companies that run either older Exchange platforms (Exchange 2003 and previous) or competing email systems to Office 365. Things are a lot slower with major customers (those who support more than 10,000 seats) simply because these environments tend to be more convoluted and so require a lot more planning to make the transition.
All in all, despite the hiccups last August and September, it’s been a pretty good first year for Office 365.
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