Microsoft’s official and
unofficial stances regarding the pace at which it expects customers to embrace
cloud computing are two different things.

Publicly, Microsoft officials
continue to insist that users can move at their own speed. Users can choose to buy
and run Microsoft software on-premises. Or they subscribe to and use
cloud-hosted versions of Microsoft wares – either directly from Microsoft or
through Microsoft hosting partners. They also can opt to go with a hybrid
on-premises/cloud approach as they see fit, Microsoft execs say.

But privately (and sometimes
not so privately), Microsoft is upping the pressure on customers to move to the
cloud. Not only is the company debuting new features and functionality first in
the cloud editions of its products, but it’s also limiting availability of some
features exclusively to the cloud versions of its wares.

In the past, the “Online”
versions of SharePoint, Exchange, and Lync included a subset of the features
that were in the on-premises versions of those servers. Microsoft execs
committed to adding as many of the missing features back into the cloud
versions as soon as it was feasible.

Now the reverse is happening.
I’ve seen more than a few IT folks worried that Microsoft isn’t going to
provide some of the coming new features that are going to be part of the next
major update for Office 365 to on-premises users of SharePoint and Exchange.

To some customers, it matters
little that Microsoft cloud offerings

like CRM Online or Exchange Online

are
ahead of their on-premises complements in terms of features. A bigger priority
for many businesses is having time to test and train individual users on new
releases before rolling them out en masse.

Microsoft officials told
attendees of the company’s SharePoint 2014 conference in March that Microsoft
won’t be releasing on-premises versions of Exchange and SharePoint Server “Next”
until sometime in calendar 2015. And officials said that those on-premises
versions will include only a subset of the new “Office Graph” technologies
Microsoft also previewed during that conference. The reasoning: Certain technologies,
like enterprise social networking, require the cloud in order to work the way
they’re architected.

Balancing the cadence scales: Getting rollouts just right

There’s another factor to
consider when attempting to navigate the Microsoft on-premises/cloud waters:  Microsoft’s new, faster rollout cadence for
both its software and services.

In the not-so-distant past,
Microsoft could be counted on to deliver new versions of Windows and Office
every two to three years. But over the past couple of years, Microsoft
management has made a concerted effort to speed up not just the cloud, but also
the on-premises, development trains.

Microsoft took close to three
years to plan, develop, and deliver Windows 7. Ditto with Windows 8. But the
team managed to plan, build, and release the next version, Windows 8.1, in
about one year. And Windows 8.1 Update 1

which, like 8.1 is not a service
pack, as it includes some new features — is coming to market just about six
months after 8.1 became broadly available. Windows Server is following a similar
rapid cadence. Office (client and servers) hasn’t yet managed to get on the
fast track, but it’s expected to do so this year.

For most consumers, faster
equals better. But for others, a new version of Windows Server, even if one
with only a few, incremental new features, is not a plus. Some businesses have
found that a new release delivered every two to three years is too fast for
them to test, deploy, and integrate. That’s how IT policies such as “We only
deploy every other Windows Server release” come to be.

Microsoft’s guidance in these
cases has been that users who want to be on the newest releases should think
about going cloud, while those who can’t digest products that quickly should
stick with on-premises versions of its products. But recently, it seemed at
least some in Redmond were rethinking that guidance.

Terry Myerson, the head of
Microsoft’s unified operating system division, planted the seed that Microsoft
might be reconsidering yet again the pace at which it delivers new versions of
its products. Instead of releasing its cloud wares ahead of its
on-premises/locally installed ones, Microsoft could opt to release its consumer
products at a faster pace than its enterprise ones, Myerson said. He didn’t say
that Microsoft is definitely planning to follow this route, but by the time
Windows 9 arrives in the spring of 2015 (if sources are right), Microsoft could
potentially end up pursuing that path.

The new, new guidance

If it’s not apparent by now,
Microsoft’s guidance on when users should go to the cloud vs. when they should
go with on-prem software isn’t clear-cut. The one trend that is fairly
transparent is that Microsoft is accelerating its cloud push and counting on
sweeping up not just consumers, but enterprise customers with it.

But Microsoft is not going to
stop building on-premises software any time soon. The company still gets the
majority of its revenues from enterprise software sales, in spite of its new
devices and services focus. New CEO Satya Nadella has a strong enterprise
heritage and has gone back to emphasizing the importance of software (not just
services and hardware) to Microsoft and its customers. 

Microsoft execs have said on
the record that there are new versions of Exchange Server, SharePoint Server,
and Lync Server in the pipeline.  SQL
Server 2014, which Microsoft released to manufacturing in mid-March 2014, will
no doubt be followed up with another on-premises release in the next year or
two. Microsoft also is on tap to deliver a new version of Windows Server,
System Center, and Windows client in calendar 2015. It’s almost certain that
more waves of releases of all these products will be delivered throughout the
next decade.

Still, Microsoft is
definitely increasing the use of both the carrot and the stick to try to move
more of its users more quickly to the cloud. “The cloud” in this
case, doesn’t mean only Microsoft software hosted in Microsoft’s and/or its
partners’ data centers. It also means cloud as in subscription model.

Look at the way Microsoft
rolled out Office Mobile for iPhone and Android phones. Microsoft requires
users to have an Office 365 subscription to use the freely downloadable client
apps. Ditto with Office 365 Personal and Office 365 Home – two Office 365
subscription programs that enable users to download and use Office client apps
on their PCs and devices for as many months/years as they pay their
subscriptions. Many Microsoft watchers are expecting the company to create
similar subscription plans to cover Windows client and possibly other
on-premises server products in the not-too-distant future.

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