Microsoft monkeys with Office 365, Microsoft 365 release channels

The company has announced sweeping name and default-setting changes for how it updates and upgrades the apps at the core of Office 365 – namely, the locally installed versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

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microsoft office 365

Microsoft last week announced sweeping name and default-setting changes for how it updates and upgrades the core of Office 365, the locally installed applications such as  Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

These changes to Office 365 were not the first for the by-subscription suite of apps and services. In 2017, Microsoft dumped an earlier set of monikers – which included "Deferred Channel" and "First Release for Deferred Channel" – for new titles that matched, more or less, the then-current Windows 10 conventions.

But in the intervening years, Windows 10 had streamlined its servicing distribution options. Microsoft did do some Windows 10-esque clean-up on Office 365's channels, but the latter, even after the changes take effect next month, will still greatly outnumber those of the operating system.

Changes, but toward what end?

The short version of Microsoft's moves: The company added one new channel to Office 365's servicing model, renamed the five existing ones to greater or lesser extent and dramatically altered the default setting for new customers.

With the exception of the addition of the new channel – dubbed "Monthly Enterprise" –  Microsoft's justification for the changes rested on the belief that the move would "help you make better decisions about the servicing strategy for your organization."

Meanwhile, Monthly Enterprise was created "based on customer feedback," the company said in a revised support document.

One of those customers wasn't buying it. "More channels and new names... why, just WHY?! You are just making things more complicated," wrote Johan Nilsson in a comment appended to the announcement.

The changes – some of which took effect immediately while others won't make an appearance until June 9 – seemed minor on the surface, but some have significant impact on what enterprises receive when. Each deserves separate parsing.

Note: As if on some kind of renaming spree, Microsoft also recently dumped the label Office 365 ProPlus to describe the locally-installed applications – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Teams and the like – that are the heart of an Office 365 or Microsoft 365 subscription. The new moniker is Microsoft 365 Apps.

M365 channels and app names IDG/Gregg Keizer

Microsoft has renamed every Office 365 ProPlus release channel for Microsoft 365 Apps, then added a new channel for good measure. This is the third such naming convention for the upgrading of applications – Word, Excel and so on – that form the heart of Office 365 and Microsoft 365 subscriptions.

Meet the new channel, Monthly Enterprise

"We recommend that you use an update channel that provides your users with the newest Office features as soon as they're ready," Microsoft said in the long support document outlining the changes. "For the last several years, Monthly Channel has provided that capability, delivering new or updated Office features every month, but on no set release schedule."

The new Monthly Enterprise Channel will be issued on a predetermined schedule, specifically on the second Tuesday of each month, the day dubbed "Patch Tuesday" because of its long association with Microsoft's release of security updates for Windows, Office and other products.

Note: The first Monthly Enterprise Channel release was on May 12, of Microsoft 365 Apps version 2003, build 12624.20588.

Unlike the earlier Monthly Channel (which this is not replacing, by the way), the new Monthly Enterprise Channel isn't composed of the very latest features and functionality, but instead contains those that have previously been provided to Current Channel users. (Current Channel will be described in more detail later.)

In fact, the new features included in the latest Monthly Enterprise Channel may be only a subset of the past Current Channel build(s). Microsoft was vague about what went into a Monthly Enterprise Channel and what had been left on the cutting room floor.

"Features that are currently in Current Channel need to meet certain release criteria before they are included in a feature update for Monthly Enterprise Channel," the firm said. "Because of this, some features that are in Current Channel aren't included right away in the next available feature update for Monthly Enterprise Channel."

Monthly Enterprise Channel versions will be supported for two months, letting users skip just one upgrade. For example, the May 12 refresh to version 2003, build 12624.20588 will be supported until July 12, that month's Patch Tuesday.

The customers most likely to switch on Monthly Enterprise Channel are those who have already been daring enough to use the former Monthly Channel; they may see the predictive once-a-month upgrade as an improvement over the catch-as-catch-can schedule they had to suffer before.

C for Current, C for Continuous

What was Monthly Channel under the old regime has been rebranded as Current Channel in the new scheme.

For the most part, the new name is the only difference. Monthly Channel provided Office 365 ProPlus upgrades at least once, but often several times, each month. There was no set schedule, no certainty about the release tempo. Features, once finished, were almost immediately flushed into public use.

Current Channel is all that, just under new title management. (Microsoft said, "Feature updates, additional security updates, quality updates, and bug fixes are delivered about two or three times a month.") Like Monthly Channel, Current is supported only until the next version arrives. Version 2004, for instance, will be supported until version 2005 releases.

The biggest change here wasn't the label, but Microsoft's decision to make Current Channel the default for all new Office 365 and Microsoft 365 customers, or tenants. That's a major departure from the previous practice, where Microsoft pre-selected the slower, more conservative twice-a-year Semi-Annual Channel as the default.

Microsoft defended the drastic acceleration to monthly. "We recommend Current Channel, because it provides your users with the newest Office features as soon as they are ready," the company stated, and elsewhere added: "[Current Channel] provide[s] your end users with the most current Office features and latest security value as soon as they are ready."

Existing customers running Microsoft 365 Apps (née Office 365 ProPlus) will not have their current (no pun intended) distribution choice altered.

To preview the contents of Current Channel, customers can select Current Channel (Preview), the new label for what was previously named Monthly Channel (Targeted). This channel will preview the same features as hit the next Current Channel release, only about a week earlier.

Another name for this also exists: Insider Slow.

Semi-Annual, now without default

Semi-Annual Channel and Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) morphed into Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel and Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel (Preview), with no alternation to release cadence (twice a year) or release schedule (January and June for non-Preview, and March and September for Preview).

The biggest difference between new and old is that the former is no longer the default for new Office 365 or Microsoft 365 tenants, that having been transferred to the Current Channel. That change, however, won't affect existing users of Microsoft 365 Apps; their default distribution channel will not change unless IT decides to do so.

Details on changing the upgrade/update channel can be found in this support document.

Support for Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel remains at 18 months, with four of those set aside for "Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel (Preview), which debuts in March for the June version and September for the January version, and the remaining 14 for each non-Preview version of Apps. (Users cannot stay on Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel (Preview) for long, as support for each version lasts only six months.)

Figure 2 shows how Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel and Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel (Preview) combine support to total 18 months and how each release relates to – and overlaps – with its predecessor and successor.

M365 app overlap IDG/Gregg Keizer

The overlap of Microsoft 365 App support in the Semi-Annual Enterprise Channel means that customers which want to upgrade just once a year have only two months to complete a migration. Here, an upgrade from 2008 to 2108 takes place in July and August 2021.

Note: Support for Office 365 ProPlus releases was initially 12 months. However, in May 2017, Microsoft extended support to 18 months.

Elsewhere, the former Insider – a channel that also went by Insider, Fast – also got a new label; it's now to be called Beta Channel.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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