Microsoft converts more customers into testers with Office Insider preview program

Reminiscent of Windows Insider, but open only to consumers with an Office 365 subscription

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Microsoft today launched a new preview program for consumers who subscribe to Office 365 that will give them a sneak peak at new features slated to be added to the subscription service in the next one to three weeks.

Office Insider was opened to subscribers of Office 365 Home, Personal and University -- the third is a four-year deal available only to college students -- who are running Office 2016 on a Windows device. Office 365 subscribers who instead work with Office 2016 on a Mac are excluded for now, although Microsoft said they would be added in the "coming months."

Like the already-established Windows Insider, Office Insider will serve as a feedback source for Microsoft's developers.

Differences abound, however: Office Insider is accessible only to consumers and students with an Office 365 rent-not-own subscription -- not to the general population as is Windows Insider -- and more importantly, will preview new features just weeks, not months, away from landing on the production track. For example, the tools Microsoft touted as now available only to Insiders -- including a pair of features for PowerPoint, and new "Send As" options for Word and PowerPoint -- are slated to ship this month.

Windows Insider typically previews changes to Windows 10 that are as much as six to nine months away from reaching everyone in the next upgrade.

"The features are typically only 1-3 weeks out from general release and just need a bit of fine-tuning before becoming more widely available," a company spokeswoman said in an email reply to questions.

Microsoft has committed to shipping monthly upgrades to Office 365 customers, something the company reiterated today. "Every month, the Office engineering team ships updates across the Office apps (mobile, desktop and Office Online), to include new functionality," the spokeswoman added.

The company maintains a website that lists each month's new features and changes, as well as separate pages that at the end of every month summarize the offerings, as this did for October.

Subscribers to the eligible Office 365 SKUs (stock-keeping units) may join Office Insider by downloading the preview edition of Office 2016 from a new section of their Office 365 account dashboard, dubbed "Additional Install Options."

Enterprise workers who have rights to Office 2016 through their workplace's Office 365 subscription are not eligible to join Office Insider. Instead, corporate administrators may join what Microsoft calls "First Release," the upgrade track that receives new features before any other.

Office 365 for businesses delivers upgrades using a multi-track system reminiscent of Windows 10, with several "branches" that allow companies to decide when corporate PCs receive upgrades to the core applications and any bundled services. Those tracks include First Release, "Current Branch" -- a monthly cadence of production-quality code -- and "Current Branch for Business," which defers upgrades for approximately four months.

Although Microsoft usually trumpets its Insider programs as a way for customers to provide feedback during development, the Redmond, Wash. company also has strategic reasons of its own.

Microsoft has made no secret that the Windows 10 Insider preview serves as a critical test bed -- the firm has shifted significant amounts of its testing to customers, arguing that that makes for faster, higher-quality releases -- so that major problems are uncovered and fixed before they reach large numbers of devices. In a similar fashion, Microsoft uses Current Branch users of both Windows 10 and Office 365 as additional guinea pigs in the hope that more bugs are caught and quashed before the upgrades reach the most important enterprise customers on the Current Branch for Business.

Office Insider may serve a similar purpose, although the shorter lag time between offering a new feature to previewers and the slated monthly rollout to consumers and Current Branch users means that such testing will be last minute, and perhaps less comprehensive.

Office Insider will also be available to Android device owners through a community on Google+, while Windows 10 Mobile users may register as a Windows Insider to receive preview builds of that OS's Office apps. Microsoft did not list iOS -- it offers Office apps for the iPhone and iPad -- among the options.

More information about the Office Insider program can be found on Microsoft's website.

Office Insider download

To participate in Office Insider, consumers and students who subscribe to Office 365 must download the preview edition of Office 2016 for Windows, and install it in lieu of the production code.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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