Microsoft delivers Office 2016 to subscribers on the slow train

Microsoft delivers Office 2016 to subscribers on the slow train

Also renames commercial Office 365 plans' update and upgrade tracks: Old 'Branches' are out, 'Channels' are in

Microsoft yesterday issued Office 2016 to Office 365 commercial subscribers who had adopted the slower release cadence, which the company called "Current Branch for Business."

Those customers may begin downloading and installing the same Office 2016 client applications -- Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Word and others -- that debuted in September 2015.

Also on Tuesday, Microsoft renamed the Office 365 release tracks it first spelled out in September. "Current Branch for Business" has been relabeled "Deferred Channel," while the faster "Current Branch" has been rebranded as "Current Channel."

Microsoft said the name changes were made for clarity, a smart explanation as "Current Branch for Business" did not really describe how it was different from the consumer-grade "Current Branch."

"While this naming change may seem small, we believe it will make a big difference in helping customers understand the purpose and cadence of the different delivery vehicles," said Amesh Mansukhani, a senior program manager on the Office 365 ProPlus team, in a Tuesday post to a company blog.

The Tuesday release of Office 2016 made good on the scheme outlined last year under which Office 365 subscribers may choose an update and upgrade rhythm, one that resembles the multi-track options of Windows 10.

Customers with a commercial Office 365 plan -- including Office 365 Business, Business Premium, E3 and E5, and the government and academic versions of those plans -- may select either Current Channel (CC) or Deferred Channel (DC) for some or all users. Current Channel is updated monthly with new features and security updates; Deferred Channel is updated three times annually with feature and functionality changes, but monthly for security fixes.

The slower pace of DC is designed to give organizations time to test the updates before deployment, and essentially sets those on the CC track as testers for DC customers.

Consumers who subscribe to Office 365 Personal or Office 365 Home do not get a choice: They are on the CC track.

If IT administrators have enabled upgrades direct from the Office content delivery network (CDN), their end users may migrate to Office 2016 as of Tuesday. A detailed support document with instructions on crafting the necessary .xml files is available on Microsoft's site.

Starting Tuesday, February 23, end users will be able to download the new applications from their own pages on the Office 365 website (accessed with their corporate usernames and passwords). Between now and February 23, IT staff can customize those user pages to set the release channel and expose links to the applications appropriate for each employee.

Keeping to the every-four-months schedule for DC, yesterday Microsoft also said that the next release for the track would ship in June.

That date is important because Microsoft has set some rules for Office 365 customers who adopt DC. They may pass on an update, but no more than one, sticking with an individual Office 2016 feature set for no longer than 8 to 12 months.

For example, those who download and install this first DC update -- the original Office 2016 applications -- may skip the June update, but must apply the next, which will appear in October. (They can postpone that update's delivery until just prior to the February 2017 release.)

Likewise, commercial subscribers to an Office 365 plan that includes the locally installed client applications may continue to run and update Office 2013 only until February 2013.

More information for IT administrators on the nuts and bolts of Office 2016 upgrades, including how to retain Office 2013 for another year, can be found on this support document.

Microsoft did not reply to questions about whether the name changes for Office's release tracks will also be adopted by Windows 10. It's reasonable to assume that they will, since Office borrowed the older "branch" lexicon from the new OS last September. When it did, Microsoft used the phrase "consistent with the Windows 10 approach" to describe the new Office update and upgrade strategy.

To have two different sets of labels for what will be parallel models would be more confusing, not less, and contradict Mansukhani's claim that the new names for Office's tracks were an effort to make things more understandable to customers.

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