We're officially one step closer to the next major release of Microsoft Office. This week, Microsoft made the first public beta version of the new productivity suite available with the launch of the Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview version.
As the name implies, this first public preview is focused on developers and IT pros. Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president for the Office 365 Client Apps and Services team, explained, "To be clear, this early build doesn't yet contain all the features we're planning to ship in the final product. However, through the course of the preview, customers should expect to see new features delivered through monthly updates."
There is a lot to like about Office 2016 from the perspective of a developer or IT admin. It includes a number of important updates and improvements in Office 2016 that will make the Office applications more secure and easier to manage, especially in large-scale deployments.
One of the best elements of Office 2016 is the incorporation of data loss protection (DLP). With major breaches compromising sensitive data on a weekly basis, it's crucial for organizations to have tools that enable them to manage and protect data at a more granular level. Microsoft has been adding DLP features to other products like Exchange, Outlook, SharePoint, and OneDrive for Business for the past few years, and now it's bringing those same capabilities to Office 2016.
The DLP features of Office 2016 enable IT admins to create, manage, and enforce content authoring and document sharing policies. The policies can dictate what types of information different users or groups are allowed to include in content and limit where those documents can be share or who they can be shared with. Koenigsbauer said that users will be prompted with policy tips or sharing restrictions when the DLP function detects a potential policy violation.
Another aspect of data protection included in Office 2016 is the extension of the Office information rights management (IRM) functionality to Visio. IRM embeds security policy in the file to protect Visio diagrams, even if they're outside of the network or offline completely.
The Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview has a variety of new tools to simplify deployment and streamline management for IT admins. Koenigsbauer described them in a blog post:
- Better network traffic management. We're introducing a new Background Intelligence Transfer Service (BITS) to help prevent congestion on the network. BITS throttles back the use of bandwidth when other critical network traffic is present.
- Enhanced distribution management. We're improving our integration with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) to allow IT admins to efficiently download and distribute monthly Office updates using the native SCCM features.
- Flexible update management. We've created a way for admins to manage the pace at which they receive feature updates and bug fixes while continuing to receive regular security updates.
- Simplified activation management. We're adding a feature in the Office 365 Admin Portal to allow admins to manage device activations across users.
Finally, the preview release has a variety of improvements to Outlook. Microsoft eliminated foreground network calls to enable Outlook to stay responsive on unreliable networks and improved the reliability of Outlook search. It also improved performance of email deliver in Outlook to speed up the time it takes to download and display messages, added support for multi-factor authentication with the Active Directory Authentication Library (ADAL), and provided additional settings to give users more control over how much data is stored locally on a device.
From an end user or consumer perspective, none of these features are all that exciting. At face value, Office 2016 looks and feels more or less like its predecessor at this point. There are changes, but most of them are under the hood and don't show up as cosmetic or aesthetic changes. For most users, that's a good thing. People tend to get disgruntled and object to new releases — particularly from Microsoft — when those releases alter the look and feel or change the way commonly used features function.
You can expect a consumer-focused Office 2016 preview in the next few months. Microsoft hasn't divulged a specific release date, but Office 2016 is expected to debut sometime late this year.
Tony Bradley is a principal analyst with Bradley Strategy Group. He is a respected authority on technology, and information security. He writes regularly for Forbes, and PCWorld, and contributes to a wide variety of online and print media outlets. He has authored or co-authored a number of books, including Unified Communications for Dummies, Essential Computer Security, and PCI Compliance.