Will quicker Office and Windows releases help or hurt IT?

As Microsoft tries to become as agile as Apple and Google, there's concern that fast-paced Windows releases won't work for enterprise customers.

As Microsoft pushes to become more like Apple and Google, IT pros are trying to sort out the ramifications.

The company's pattern of delivering major Office and Windows releases every three years has worked well for decades. (The two products accounted for more than half of Microsoft's nearly $70 billion in revenue last year.) But as Apple and Google take a more aggressive approach to updating their respective operating systems and cloud-based applications, Microsoft's model might have run its course. CEO Steve Ballmer admitted as much this week after Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky left the company; the chief executive said Microsoft needs to implement "more integrated and rapid development cycles."

Big Office changes coming

Microsoft will begin with a restructuring of its Office suite. The company plans to merge the core functions and features of Office for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android into a single product, said a source with direct knowledge of the situation. Then, by purchasing a single subscription, users can download this core version along with OS-specific software components, this source said.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate physical installations of Office on any operating system or mobile device, and have all customers acquire and install the product through an online subscription.

It absolutely makes sense to re-architect Office in this way, because there is value in having one license that covers multiple platforms, said Philip L. Moya Jr., IT manager at the San Antonio Kidney Disease Center.

The future of Windows releases

The future is not so clear when it comes to Windows, Microsoft's other flagship product. With a completely redesigned, touchscreen-enabled interface, Windows 8 and Windows RT, its counterpart based on the ARM processor, could struggle to gain traction in the enterprise.

Moya has looked at the new Microsoft-manufactured Surface RT tablet, but it has too many shortcomings for business use, he said. "[You're] not able to join Active Directory domains or push out Group Policies," he said. "Those are deal breakers for the Surface RT, since that's how IT handles management of its computing assets."

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Moya will wait for the Intel-based version of the Surface, which is due out in 2013, because it will provide the management features he said his medical center needs.

Microsoft will need to establish an effective mobile strategy if it is to thrive -- or at least survive -- in this new era of computing.

"Their tablets look interesting, but they are not in the same conversation here with Apple," said Len Barney, purchasing agent with a large transportation company in Jacksonville, Fla. "We aren't ready to dive into Windows 8 for both desktops and mobile stuff. That's a longer process."

As Microsoft execs reexamine their Office and Windows release cycles, they should treat the desktop and mobile markets differently, said Al Gillen, a program vice president with IDC. "If Microsoft is going to have one operating system stretching across tablets and PCs, they have to build in some flexibility on the tablet side of things to be more responsive to market needs," he said. "The PC cycle has to be slower, more measured -- the way it has always been."

Some critics have suggested Microsoft should have focused on delivering new versions of Windows for tablets and smartphones first, then delivered Windows 8 for the desktop at least a year later. By then, their thinking goes, corporate shops would have had more time to get adjusted to the product's capabilities and been more open to upgrading from Windows 7.

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