The good and the bad of Microsoft’s current software development cadence appeared in full view for the Exchange community over the past week. On the positive side, Microsoft made Office Delve available to Office 365 tenants who had enabled their domain for “First Release” access to new features, a switch that allows customers to use new functionality two weeks or so before general release across Office 365. Microsoft also demonstrated the over-changing nature of the cloud by introducing a feature to allow companies to customize Office 365 with a corporate theme and another to give Outlook Web App (OWA) users the ability to propose new time slots for meeting requests.
The first update is an extension of the OWA themes that on-premises customers are familiar with, so yes, even more opportunity now exists for the “cats” theme to spread itself across the world as applying a theme makes it appear in all parts of Office 365. No doubt this change will be welcomed by those who insist that corporate logos must be visible at all times, even when users are fully aware of the company for which they work and have seen the logo many times before. But joking apart, anything that introduces more color is welcome.
The second addresses a feature deficiency that has irritated OWA users for quite a while and closes a gap with Outlook, so that’s welcome. OWA received a make-over in Exchange 2013 to accommodate different device form factors and getting all the features back into the client has been a slow process. Another one off the list!
And then there’s Delve, announced with much fanfare at the Exchange Conference last March (when it was known as code name “Oslo.” Perhaps because I spent years trying to figure out how knowledge management should be done inside a large corporation, I consider Delve to be possibly the most interesting new technology introduced into Office 365 since its launch. The other applications running inside Office 365 are either cloud-enabled versions of products like Exchange and SharePoint that have been around for a long time or bought-in apps like Yammer. I'm not undervaluing the mammoth engineering task of transforming something like Exchange from on-premises enterprise-centric software into something that can function effectively on both on-premises and cloud platforms, but Delve is different because it is new.
Delve seeks to unearth and surface information shared by users in locations like SharePoint sites and OneDrive for business and present the information in a card-like interface, such as the draft presentations for next week's Exchange Connections shown in the screenshot below. I didn't have to do anything to create this view - Delve found the documents in shared SharePoint sites where I stored the content.
Under the surface, Delve mines information streams published by applications and figures out what it thinks should be important to end users, which is the information presented through its interface. This sounds simple – find some stuff, figure it out, show it – but the magic is in the machine learning algorithms that interpret, sort, and assess the data. It’s easy to find and present stuff – Google and Bing do this all the time – but it is awfully difficult to do so in a coherent, logical, and useful manner.
The challenge for Delve is to find and present interesting information (in user eyes) and then hide all of the complexity of where the information comes from and how it needs to be accessed. The same user experience should happen whether an item comes from Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, Yammer, or anywhere else. And of course, no information should ever be revealed unless its owner has allowed access to it.
It’s still too early to know whether Delve will be the home run that Microsoft obviously wants it to be by showing that the software giant still has innovation at its heart and an ability to deliver unique value to its customers.
I suspect that Delve will be much more useful to large corporations where more connections exist between different users and groups than it will be in the cosier settings found in small companies. After all, if you can bump into the entire technical community of a company around the coffee pot every morning, you probably don’t need Delve to tell you what’s going on – but inside large companies where information silos spring up all the time, being able to discover and mine information is really important.It’s also true that Delve will take time to settle down within Office 365 as Microsoft tweaks and refines the code based on user feedback. All software has bugs and Delve has some breaking through already, as you’d expect. What, for instance, is that “Foreign Principal for Microsoft Support” entry in my People View (see screenshot)?
Delve and the other new Office 365 features exhibit the good side of the accelerated software development that we have come to expect from Office 365 and other cloud services. Unfortunately, the bad side is obvious too as Exchange 2013 CU6 continues to lurch from issue to issue.
Whereas Microsoft controls everything inside Office 365 and can react awfully quickly to fix problems as they arise, the same situation does not exist for on-premises software once it is released. The thought therefore arises that the same cadence and focus on getting updates out the door might not be appropriate for both platforms. Something has to be done to improve matters, preferably by not shipping cumulative updates that have interoperability and co-existence flaws.
Hopefully matters will improve for Exchange 2016. Signs are that we won’t see an om-premises version of Delve shipped alongside the other Office products in the Wave 16 release, but who knows… Microsoft might surprise us.
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PS. If you don't want users of an Office 365 tenant domain to be able to access Delve, go to the Office 365 admin page, then SharePoint, settings, and then click the appropriate button: