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 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 implied.
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.
At the root of Microsoft's problem was the complexity of what is still a hybrid ecosystem, with some components of the service-style Office 365 still hosted on-premises -- as Office is, no matter how it's obtained -- or when tools work on licensed copies but also do more with a subscription. "That's the conundrum, trying to compare on-premises with off," Miller said. "This really highlights the complexity of describing the hosted and on-premises products when licensed two different ways, from both a supportability and licensing perspective."
And that translates into a tougher time gauging the usefulness of a service pack for licensed products like Office 2013 SP1.
Other than Power Map, Microsoft called out only a few new features in SP1. Among them: a name change of SkyDrive Pro to OneDrive for Business to match the new brand that debuted in January and launched last week; compatibility fixes to better support Windows 8.1 and Internet Explorer 11 (IE11); enhanced support for higher-resolution devices, including tablets and 2-in-1s; and new APIs (application programming interfaces) for developers building Office Apps, the add-ons that are being distributed and sold at the Office Store.
The continual influx of features or apps for Office 365, and the relative paucity of like features in SP1, has made some wonder whether licensing Office the old-fashioned way puts them at the back of the line and casts them as second-class customers.
There's some truth to that, said Miller. "It's relatively clear that Microsoft, while certainly not abandoning traditional licensing, can't update on-premises with the velocity we've just seen for Office 365 [in the last year]," he said. Some of that is resistance from companies that do license Office the traditional way; they're not ready or willing to change, Miller contended.
The emphasis on Office 365's primacy is part of the "cloud-first" strategy that Microsoft is pursuing, said Miller, whether referenced as "services" in former CEO Steve Ballmer's drive toward making the company a "devices and services" firm, or in the first-day phrase of "mobile-first, cloud-first," of new CEO Satya Nadella.
Although Office 2013 users will receive SP1 notifications over the next 30 days through Windows Update and WSUS (Windows Server Update Services), customers can immediately download the service pack manually using links found in a support document. The 32-bit version of Office 2013 SP1 tipped the digital scales at 644MB, while the 64-bit version was a 744MB download.
At the end of that 30-day stretch, Microsoft will begin pushing SP1 as an automatic update to users. The delay between initial availability and automatic updating through Windows Update is normal practice for Microsoft, one designed to give companies time to prepare for the update, or put in place mechanisms to block the update until they can test it on a subset of their systems.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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