Microsoft delivered the first service pack for Office 2013 on Tuesday, making good on a promise last year to ship the update in early 2014 and synchronizing its release with prior editions' initial service packs.
Office 2013 Service Pack 1 (SP1) was accompanied by similar updates for Exchange 2013 and SharePoint 2013, the two most important server-side products that tie in with Office in enterprises.
The release of SP1 was right on time: The last two Office SP1 updates, for Office 2010 and Office 2007, shipped about 13 months after their respective original editions' debut. Microsoft started selling Office 2013 at the end of January 2013.
Traditionally, service packs -- whether for Windows, Office or any other product in the Microsoft portfolio -- have been little more than collections of past security patches and other non-security bug fixes.
That's changed: Microsoft has done away with service packs for Windows and instead has moved to a faster development and release tempo, such as October's Windows 8.1, an update -- don't call it an "upgrade" -- that included new features, revamped apps, user interface (UI) changes and some backpedaling from design decisions that many customers couldn't swallow.
While Microsoft seems determined to retain service packs for Office, it's made clear that for Office, Exchange and SharePoint, changes and new features will be offered first to subscribers of Office 365 and the cloud-based à la carte services like Exchange Online. On-premises software, like Office 2013 when sold as a "perpetual" license -- paid for once, then used as long as the user wants -- presumably receive the same updates and features, although at a later date.
That was in evidence in Office 2013 SP1.
Microsoft added Power Map, a 3D data-visualization tool that's been in a public preview stage since April 2013 and part of the Power BI [business intelligence] for Office 365, as a native, in other words built-in, tool rather than an add-on. But it's available only to Office 365 customers, Microsoft inferred.
Not true, said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, in an interview Wednesday. "The edition of Excel included in Office Professional Plus will include it as well. Cheaper editions/editions not [sold] through volume licensing won't include it."
Which is a problem. Miller argued that Microsoft has done a poor job explaining to customers what licensed Office users get, what Office 365 customers receive, and how much each costs. "It hasn't been messaged well," Miller said. "And it's hard to make a buying decision if you don't know what you're buying."
As an example, Miller cited Power BI and the integrated-into-Excel tools, such as Power Map, Power View, Power Pivot and Power Query, which can be used as stand-alone tools or in conjunction with the back-end service of Power BI.
"[Power BI] is a very interesting suite of technologies, but the problem with its integration with Excel is that it starts to be difficult to explain," Miller said.
To access Power BI, customers must have Office 365 ProPlus (which costs $12 per user per month), Office 365 Midsize Business ($15), or Office 365 Enterprise E3 ($20) or E4 ($22), then pay an additional $20 to $40 per user per month for the new service.
Companies or organizations that have already purchased perpetual-license Office -- Office 2013 Professional Plus in most cases -- can subscribe to Power BI for $40 per user per month.