If you were to condense Microsoft’s messaging at Build 2013 in San Francisco last week down to its most salient point, it would be this: Speed to market is now a feature. Whether you’re talking about Windows 8 (and RT), Windows Server,, Windows Azure, or virtually any of its other most important platforms, Microsoft has pegged the throttle and is moving forward with a strategy of continuous improvements. I applaud this sea change. But it’s only going to work if Microsoft’s slower-moving customers jump on board as well.
In a brief appearance during the opening keynote at Build, Microsoft corporate vice president of Windows and Windows Services Julie Larson-Green summed up how this change has impacted her core product. “The biggest feature in Windows 8.1 is that it only took us 8 months to get here,” she said, noting that the Windows team had dramatically changed the engineering process to be more responsive to changes in technology, to customer and to partners.
OK, that 8-month figure is a bit of a stretch: It will take closer to a year for Microsoft to actually complete Windows 8.1 and of course most of its new features were in the works before the initial release of Windows 8/RT. And the truly cynical might point out that another way of looking at this accomplishment is that it actually took Microsoft 4 years to get Windows 8 right. But I think we need to give the company this one: Windows 8 is a major rethinking of Windows with new APIs and usage models that fundamentally alter a platform in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago.
Products such as Windows Server and various server products are also on an annual schedule now, and the most important takeaway I had from a pre-show press briefing was that this wasn’t a one-off event: Microsoft plans to keep up this updating pace going forward. More impressive, perhaps: Some products are being updated far more quickly than annually. (And even Windows, thanks to monthly scheduled updates as well various Metro app updates—not to mention regular Surface firmware updates—is arguably on a faster pace than annual as well.)
Consider Office 365, which is in many ways the true pacesetter at Microsoft. This online service was tasked with two incredibly heady goals: Replace Microsoft’s most popular on-premises businesses—Exchange and SharePoint—with online services and then make Microsoft’s most popular desktop software (i.e., Office) available as a subscription service. Not impressed? Not only does Office 365 succeed at these goals, but Microsoft is now set up to improve them monthly going forward, with fairly major releases on a quarterly basis.
Sure, Microsoft will continue to give lip service to the on-premises versions of its Office servers and desktop software and will continue to provide both to customers as long as there is demand. But I think that demand is going to dry up more quickly than many had expected, for two reasons. First, and most important, Office 365 is an exceptional deal financially, one that offloads the cost and burden of deploying, managing, and servicing this software. And second, the Office 365 offerings are updated more quickly than the more monolithic on-premises releases.
That latter bit might stick in the craw a bit if you’re used to tightly controlling your environment. But in this age of trends like BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and the consumerization of IT, keeping users happy is of paramount importance. And while a 6-year-old version of Office running on ancient hardware might have been the norm several years ago, that’s not working here in the 21st century.
That said, there are legitimate questions about how continuous improvements to the products and services your employees use can impact the business in other ways—training costs, complexity of multiple solutions and/or solution versions, and so on—especially in the mixed environments that will be very typical going forward. Again, I feel that Office 365 has arrived at the appropriate template that the rest of Microsoft should follow: It allows enterprise customers to hold off on quarterly updates for up to 1 year. And then those updates are applied.
Windows isn’t Office, of course, and none of Microsoft’s on-premises solutions offer such a plan. That’s partially because Microsoft already offers incredible (if complex) toolsets for controlling which updates make the way to users and when. But continuous improvements only make sense when they are in fact continuous, and organizations that continue blocking updates for over a year are sadly just engaging in the same stereotypical blocking behavior that users have accused them of for years.
Looking at Windows specifically, I can say this: Windows 8.1 is a major update to Windows 8/RT, one that will dramatically improve both the manageability and usability of this most reviled of Windows releases. While the conventional wisdom is that few businesses will roll out Windows 8/RT, I think that this view is incorrect and that Windows 8/RT—combined with Windows 8.1 and a growing new generation of truly interesting tablets and hybrid PCs—offer a compelling and superior alternative, especially for mobile computing, to rolling out Windows 7 on yesterday’s hardware.
But that’s only true if you let it happen.