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Office 2016 - great for Office 365 but not so good for on-premises customers

Microsoft will formally release the new Office 2016 suite of desktop applications on September 22. It is natural to ask whether any compelling reason exists to upgrade when a new release of Office appears. After using beta versions of Office 2016 in production for the last four months, my view is that the new software is solid. I certainly haven’t had problems with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or Outlook. However, use of these applications is very personal and I can’t guarantee how someone’s favorite feature operates, especially if it’s anything to do with the deeper functionality that can be exploited in Excel.

The answer to the upgrade question depends on the environment you run. If you use Office 365, then it makes sense to use the latest version of Office in order to maintain pace with the release of new features into the service. Microsoft’s click-to-run technology has matured well and makes it reasonably easy to install the new version on PCs. Of course, some work is still necessary to ensure that PCs are configured with the right policies. 

The situation is completely different for on-premises customers. Office 2016 is firmly focused on the cloud and Microsoft makes no excuse for concentrating its engineering investment in features that leverage Office 365. Given the change that has occurred in the market, it’s entirely natural that Microsoft’s focus should be where it lies. If you were making decisions about how to invest engineering resources into new functionality, which platform would you concentrate on – fast-growing cloud services or the declining on-premises? To me, it’s an easy and logical call, even if the result will disappoint some on-premises customers.

Office 2016 really doesn’t deliver much to the on-premises base. For instance, Office 365 Groups don’t exist for on-premises deployments, so the fact that Outlook 2016 now supports Office 365 Groups is great for Office 365 tenants but of zero importance to the on-premises space. The same is true of Clutter. It’s great that Outlook 2016 now includes the ability to mark messages to go to Clutter, but not even on-premises Exchange 2016 supports Clutter.

You can argue that the same is true for modern attachments, which work wonderfully in the cloud because Microsoft does the heavy lifting to integrate Exchange and SharePoint. On-premises users will continue to attach documents to messages because they don’t enjoy the same integration or because their company has not deployed SharePoint. Ditto for real-time co-authoring in Word 2016, easier saving of messages to OneDrive (personal or business) or SharePoint sites, and so on. Some of this stuff works on-premises, but only if you refresh your environment with Exchange 2016, SharePoint 2016 and probably some other bits and pieces too, all of which incurs a lot of cost.

If you run SharePoint on-premises, you might be excited at the prospect of being able to apply Data Loss Prevention (DLP) policies to protect sensitive data in documents, but that’s not possible because these policies are configured and managed through the Office 365 Compliance Center and have not been backported. Given what we know about the way users store sensitive data in SharePoint Online, the lack of DLP support for on-premises SharePoint seems like a pity.

In fact, the single biggest Office 2016 feature that I can find that is of immediate value to on-premises customers is that Outlook 2016 uses online searches when the client is connected to the network. Online searches make use of the Search Foundation and replace the erratic and unpredictable results produced by Windows Desktop Search. I really like this feature a lot.

In a nutshell, if you use Office 365, you should consider upgrading to Office 2016 to maximize user ability to take advantage of the features available in the service. If not, take your time and upgrade when it makes business and technical sense to move, such as if you need to upgrade from an old and unsupported version of Office.

Finally, I was reminded of how fragile the chain that links us to cloud services can sometimes be when I arrived at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas for this week's IT/DEV Connections conference and attempted to connect to Office 365. Nothing happened because the OpenDNS service used by the hotel’s network blocked Office 365 along with Twitter, Facebook, and a pile of other services. It took the hotel three hours to restore service, probably by kicking the server into submission. Oh well…

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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