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Microsoft: We can update Office-by-subscription every 90 days

Analysts parse what little Redmond has said about refreshing Office 2013 software for subscribers

March 1, 2013 02:16 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft may upgrade Office 2013 as often as four times a year, the company's top Office executive said this week, a massive change from decades of more measured development.

The faster release pace for Office has been repeatedly touted by Microsoft as one of the benefits to customers who switch from the traditional "perpetual" licensing model -- where payments are made once for the right to run software forever -- to the Office 365 software-by-subscription plans introduced this year.

In January, Kurt DelBene, who heads the Office group, cited frequent updates when he introduced Office 365 Home Premium. "This is a major leap forward," said DelBene of his plan to transform the company's traditional three-year release cycle.

But while it has trumpeted the faster pace of changes in Office-by-subscription, Microsoft has been mum about the details, including the frequency of those updates and upgrades, and what they will contain.

This week, however, DelBene gave some of the first hints of what Microsoft has in mind.

At a technology conference hosted by Morgan Stanley, DelBene answered a question about release cadence changes. "We already have the mechanisms in place to update the [Office 365] service on a quarterly basis," said DelBene. "With the client subscription...we'll have the ability to do that with client business as well, the desktop version of Office."

As DelBene noted, Microsoft has roughly followed a quarterly update schedule for Office 365's cloud-based services, whether that has been changes to the hosted versions of SharePoint or Exchange or Lync, or as the case last October, updates to the Web app versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

DelBene did not promise quarterly updates to the client software -- Office 2013 -- that's included with many of the Office 365 subscriptions, but simply said that those were possible.

Analysts noted as much, but interpreted DelBene's comments differently.

"They have serviced the platforms within Office 365, little things here and there, and they'd like to move to a cloud cadence, if you will, [for Office 2013], too," said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft, when asked to parse the clues. But he thought it less than a promise, and if that, not immediate. "It's an ambition, more a goal that they're working toward."

Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner, was more optimistic that Microsoft would actually pick up the pace, and soon. "[DelBene] is certainly intimating more frequent releases, and I'd expect them to do that."

What those updates would contain remained a mystery to the experts, who speculated that if changes do come frequently, by necessity they would be minor, with a feature here, a tweaked tool there.

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