As you probably know, Microsoft allows administrators to nominate tenants to participate in the "First Release" Office 365 program. The default is to remain with "Standard Release", which means that new functionality is released to your tenant when it's good and ready. Or as Microsoft puts it:
"You and your users receive a select set of significant service updates 3 weeks or more after the official announcement. For at least 3 weeks, you have time to learn about the updates and prepare your employees."
All of which is very nice. You see the post on Office Blogs and can leap into action to prepare your users.
First Release is different because:
"You and your users receive a select set of significant service updates as early as one week after the official announcement. Choose this option if you and your employees are comfortable with regular updates to the Office 365 service."
In other words, you are part of the official guinea pig community and will cope with an ever-changing vista as Microsoft introduce updates to the service. It's absolutely true that you have to be comfortable with change as anyone who is not should avoid going anywhere near First Release. In fact, these folks would probably be better off running Exchange 2007 SP1 on a nice Windows 2003 server under their desk, just like they have since late 2009 or thereabouts.
First Release is the bleeding edge of Office 365, but there's lots to like about it. That is, if you like your software served raw, which is why I enable First Release. To do this, go to the Office 365 Portal, click Service Settings, then Updates, and enable the feature. The screen shot below shows that the latest option, which is to restrict First Release to a named set of users, is enabled for the tenant. This is a good way of allowing users who understand technology to see new features first, like your mates in the IT department.
Note that some oddities can occur if you enable the "staged rollout" option. For example, I couldn't work out why I never received any of the summary messages that Clutter provides to users to tell them about the items it processed on their behalf. As it turns out, some of the features being released don't know anything about staged rollouts and look to see whether a tenant is enabled (completely) for First Release. When I switched back and enabled First Release for everyone, the notification messages appeared.
Of course, if you don't trust portals, you can check the release setting with PowerShell:
Get-OrganizationConfig | Select ReleaseTrack ReleaseTrack ------------------- First Release
Running First Release means that you get an insight into features that are being fine-tuned before final release. Take Delve for instance. Delve has been in First Release status since September 2014 and has been tuned extensively during that period to reflect user reaction. In January 2015, Microsoft added the popular Boards feature to Delve and also exposed Exchange email attachments through the Delve interface. When Delve was finally made generally available, it was much improved because of the extra development.
Most features don't get this kind of extensive or extended work-over when in First Release status. But even so, having the ability to see and work with a new feature is a great way of understanding where problems for your tenant might lie. Office 365 Groups are a great example. Those exposed to Groups through First Release quickly understood that some of the administrative capabilities were underdeveloped. Knowing this allowed tenants to prepare for general availability and workaround the problem.
Some companies want to have the advance warning about new functionality provided through First Release without exposing the bulk of their users to changes before they are fully ready. For this reason, they run a test tenant that is enabled for First Release and keep their production tenant on standard release. I think this is a pretty good way of gaining the advantage from First Release while maintaining stability for users.
Overall, I think the First Release program works for both Microsoft and Office 365 customers. Like all programs, it has its ups and downs, but overall it delivers goodness. That is, unless you have been scarred by previous exposure to unstable and immature software releases and don't wish to go down that path again, which is a valid reason to stay with the Standard Release. Another valid reason is the understandable desire to let others go first and benefit from their experience. After all, this approach has worked well for many companies who have faithfully followed the mantra of never installing a new version of a Microsoft server application until the first service pack appears.
Enabling First Release is only one way of finding out what Microsoft is doing within Office 365. Checking the Office 365 Roadmap periodically is another good thing to do as is reading the messages that Microsoft sends to tenant administrators that appear in the Admin Portal. And of course, you should be reading blogs and articles from people who have their eyes peeled for new stuff that happens in the service. Remember, forewarned is forearmed…
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