The last major releases of Windows and Office were Windows 10 and Office 2016, both released in 2015. In the years since then, both platforms have undergone rapid development, and seen a lot of changes made. Microsoft have changed how they release and update software. We no longer see long periods in between major updates. Now, the “as a service” model is being applied to everything from the cloud, all the way down to the desktop.
New development models mean new servicing models. Microsoft has already changed the servicing models for products such as Exchange Server. They're moving away from intermittent service packs, and using more regular updates to add features. In the case of Exchange Server, quarterly updates have been the servicing model since the release of Exchange 2013. It's about the closest a server product can get to the “as a service” model.
Office client applications have also been operating under a more frequent servicing model. The Office 365 ProPlus software, starting with Office 2013 builds, is a continuously updating bundle of Office desktop applications. Customers can use different update channels to receive new Office features as often as monthly.
Last year, Microsoft announced that Windows, Office, and System Center Config Manager were aligning their release schedules. And this month, Microsoft has announced further changes to the Windows and Office servicing models, as well as their plans for the upcoming Office 2019 release.
Windows 10 and Office 365 ProPlus Servicing
The key themes of the new Windows 10 and Office 365 ProPlus servicing model are:
- Feature updates two times per year.
- Monthly “quality updates”, which include security updates, bug fixes, and performance/reliability improvements.
Windows 10 has two update channels for feature updates:
- Semi-Annual Channel (SAC) gets feature updates twice per year. Each SAC release will be serviced/supported for 18 months from the date of release.
- Long-Term Servicing Channel (LTSC) gets feature updates every 2-3 years. Each LTSC release will be serviced/supported for 10 years from the date of release. Note: the LTSC is for special purpose computers. It's not for customers who simply don't want to update.
Office 365 ProPlus has three update channels for feature updates:
- Monthly Channel gets feature updates monthly. Each Monthly channel release is serviced/supported until the next Monthly channel release.
- Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) gets feature updates twice per year, in March and September. Each Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) release is serviced/supported for 18 months from the date of release.
- Semi-Annual Channel gets featured updates in January and July. The Semi-Annual Channel receives feature updates four months after the Targeted channel. So each Semi-Annual Channel release is serviced/supported for 14 months from the date of release.
Updated Support Guidance for Office 365 ProPlus on Windows 10
Operating system support for Office 365 ProPlus is broad. Today, you can run Office 365 ProPlus on:
- Windows 10, 8.1, 8, and 7 (SP1)
- Windows Server 2016, 2012 R2, 2012, and 2008 R2
The only caveat is to “use the latest version of any operating system”. That general advice is fine for the old servicing model for Windows. Significant feature updates that could impact Office clients were few and far between.
But, the servicing model for the Windows operating system has changed with Windows 10. Microsoft releases new builds several times per year. Compared to Windows 7, which has been static since the release of SP1 in February 2011, Windows 10 is moving ahead at a much faster pace. This creates a problem for the Office development teams. Supporting a wide range of Windows 10 builds adds a lot of overhead to their efforts.
Earlier this month, Microsoft clarified the support stance for running Office 365 ProPlus on Windows 10. Office 365 ProPlus will not be supported on Windows 10 SAC releases that are no longer being serviced. In other words, if your Windows 10 SAC build is more than 18 months old, it's not supported to run Office 365 ProPlus.
Further, Microsoft states that from January 14, 2020, Office 365 ProPlus will no longer be supported on:
- Any Windows 10 LTSC release
- Windows Server 2016 and older
- Windows 8.1 and older
That guidance applies to the Office 2016 version of Office 365 ProPlus, which is the only version supported today. Support for the Office 2013 version of Office 365 ProPlus ended in February 2017; although Microsoft does continue to provide security updates until April 2023.
The word “supported” means many things. In Microsoft Land, when something is not supported, that doesn't mean it won't work. Sometimes it means that they no longer test that combination of software, so there's no assurance of stability or reliability.
It also doesn't mean that you can't contact Microsoft Support for help when you're having problems. But, during those support calls they may need you to update your software to a supported scenario before they can help you. Microsoft will also not release bug fixes for unsupported builds.
The Office 2019 Era, and the End of MSIs
At Ignite 2017, Microsoft announced their plans to release Office 2019 in the second half of 2018. Previews of Office 2019 will begin appearing in the second quarter of 2018. This gives us some time to familiarise ourselves with the new apps and services, and plan for deployment.
Two more significant announcements for Office 2019 have also been made earlier this month. The first is that Office 2019 will be supported to run on:
- Any supported Windows 10 SAC release (see the earlier information about how long SAC releases are considered supported).
- Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC 2018 (the next LTSC release of Windows 10, due for release this year). The previous LTSC releases will not be supported to run Office 2019.
- The next LTSC release of Windows Server (no name or date supplied for this yet).
That's right. No support at all for running Office 2019 on operating systems older than Windows 10.
The obvious point to make here is that keeping your Windows 10 deployments up to date will be a key element in a successful Office 2019 deployment.
The second announcement is that Office 2019 client apps will be released as a Click-to-Run (CTR) install only. There will be no MSI package released for Office 2019 client apps. For customers who have been sticking with MSI deployment these last few years, instead of transitioning to CTR deployment, now is the time to start planning to change Office deployment methods.
Of course, it's hard to get excited about an Office release that hasn't arrived yet. With no details on new features or improvements, it's a bit early to be able to build a solid case for deploying.
But when the previews, and then the full release, arrive later this year, I recommend you start your assessment and planning immediately so you can stay well ahead of any end of life announcements for Office 2016.
Can We Stick to Office 2016?
Sure, go for it. I have no doubt that many customers will do just that. After all, we're still seeing Windows XP and Office 2007 in the wild today. It's a lot of risk to carry, but that's what some customers are prepared to do.
The release of Office 2019 won't make Office 2016 unsupported. But, it does mark the beginning of the countdown towards end of life. Mainstream support for Office 2016 ends in October 2020, and extended support ends in October 2025. As a change from the normal 5+5 support lifecycle, Office 2019 extended support will also end in October 2025, only two years after mainstream support ends. This is a strong hint that long extended support periods will not be the norm in future. While some customers treated the end of mainstream support as the trigger to start planning their next upgrade, that strategy will become increasingly risky in future.
End of life dates have a habit of sneaking up on us, leaving some customers in a mad scramble to update when they realize they're unsupported.
If you do stick with Office 2016 and ignore Office 2019, things will no doubt keep working for a while. For Office 365, what you can expect is that the user experience for Office 2016 will degrade over time. Once a version of Office falls out of support, Microsoft makes no guarantees that their cloud services will continue to work for those clients. For Office 365 to keep moving ahead, support for old things needs to be left behind.
The Continuous Journey of Modern IT
Some customers don't like change. It's a sentiment that is incompatible with the nature of cloud services. As Microsoft themselves state:
Modern software not only provides new features to help people do their best work, but also new, more efficient manageability solutions and more comprehensive approaches to security. Software that is more than a decade old, and hasn’t benefited from this innovation, is difficult to secure and inherently less productive. As the pace of change accelerates, it has become imperative to move our software to a more modern cadence.
I agree with that, but that's not the point. Being sensible about this, using cloud-based and subscription-based services means accepting certain realities. One of those is that things will change, whether the timing suits us or not, and that we need to change along with them.
That means deploying updates and maintaining our environments within supported scenarios. These are not new responsibilities just because Office 365 came on the scene. IT departments have been responsible for this type of maintenance for a long time. Old software becomes unsupported and needs to be replaced.
The difference now is that we can't delay updates, or leave them for big IT refresh projects every 3-4 years, because the update cadence is increasing.
The best we can hope for is adequate notice of upcoming changes. With this month's announcements from Microsoft, consider yourself notified. I'm sure it will be an exciting time for us all.