Another year is coming to an end and for Microsoft 365 it has been full of announcements and new releases. It’s hard to imagine ten years ago Exchange 2010 was brand new and people were rushing to replace their aging Exchange 2003 installations – nor does is seem nearly nine years since Office 365 was launched, either. It blows my mind to think that some of you reading this now will have years of experience and might have begun your careers in IT with Office 365.
I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the really game-changing stuff that’s appeared this year. There are so many new features that sometimes when you are at the end of the firehose you don’t appreciate how much changes.
When I sat down to go through my notes for this article, I only picked the best new features of the year – and came up with over 30 big new releases or new features – out of hundreds of changes that have been released across the suite. So from over 30, I’ve trimmed that down to just my top five…
Microsoft Teams Content Camera
Possibly my favourite feature announced – and actually released – this year has to be the Microsoft Teams content camera, a.k.a. the Magic Whiteboard. Add a second camera to your Teams Room, and focus it on the whiteboard. It will automatically frame the whiteboard and ensure that even if someone walks in front of it, participants in the meeting can still see the content.
Whilst it’s not going to be used in every single meeting room (and Microsoft Whiteboard is a great way to do this for remote meetings) it’s something that catches the imagination of everyone I show it to. One person was absolutely astounded when they saw it and said: “How can it see through the person?!”. Just last week on the Practical 365 podcast Sigi and I discussed the latest updates – you can now get a ceiling mount for a tidy meeting room, and older Surface-based Teams Rooms get the feature too.
Windows Virtual Desktop (and the FSLogix acquisition)
Citrix employees might not be as keen on this announcement, but many IT departments really like Windows Virtual Desktops. Microsoft spent a few years in the wilderness, relying on partnerships with Citrix to support their capabilities for VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) and organizations have continued to deploy Citrix infrastructure where they need to.
However, we are at a point where the vast majority of organizations are moving away from legacy VDI solutions where old-style line of business applications are delivered to workers using remote desktops. Whilst Citrix employees continue to promote the idea of being able to get access to your desktop applications on a smartphone (seriously, why?) the rest of the world know that the modern workplace is all about anywhere access using applications that work well on the right form factor and aren’t hosted back at your datacentre.
But – not all organizations are ready for that and have made investments in thin-clients but are moving to Office 365.
The FSLogix acquisition was a great move by Microsoft, taking the leading technology IT departments were buying to make Office 365 work well on VDI and RDS solutions and including it within their existing Microsoft 365 licensing.
Windows Virtual Desktop is seen by many organizations as something that strategically fits well with the way they want to mix new Windows 10 devices for users but also provides a scalable, cloud-based Windows 10 virtual desktop infrastructure. I commonly hear that people plan to decommission their legacy Citrix infrastructure that they maintain for a subset of users and also to provide organization-wide Disaster Recovery capabilities and move to Windows Virtual Desktop to meet the pockets of usage they need with the ability to scale up on demand, should they need it.
Microsoft Teams Direct Guest Join
The pain of multiple conferencing solutions is one that can’t be understated and is difficult to avoid. We can’t expect every organization to use Microsoft Teams and of course, businesses will work with each other and need to have meetings every so often.
If you’ve bought meeting room systems and then received an invite from another company that doesn’t use the same setup, then it’s a painful experience. Often IT departments need to provision phone numbers for the rooms so they can dial-out for an audio-only experience, and people using the rooms then need to hook up a laptop to join and screen share.
The Direct Guest join functionality will allow a Teams Room to join WebEx and Zoom meetings. This is because all three vendors have near-full featured web-based join capabilities and have committed to ensuring they don’t break each other’s solutions. When it’s released, meeting joining with the most common competing technologies will be a lot easier.
I’ll start off with the caveat – this is touted to be an E5-only feature for Office 365, but for organizations with knowledge workers who deal with a lot of information, Project Cortex may well justify that investment.
This new feature uses AI to recognise content within Office 365 to identify content types and important information, categorising information into relevant areas so that it can be easily used by people within the business in a context-sensitive way. We’ve had the people graph – we’ve had delve – Project Cortex is the knowledge graph for Office 365 building a network based on the relationships between topics and content as well as people.
Many organizations embarking on SharePoint online projects for Knowledge Management Systems are already doing a lot of this work manually – and sometimes not very successfully. For these organizations this will make a big difference – it gives far more of a guarantee that the work they do to organize their data and documents in Office 365 will pay off. It’s in private preview now and big international professional services organizations are using it.
The New Yammer
Our final favourite announcement from 2019 is Yammer. The death of Yammer has long been suggested and Microsoft Teams has been said by some to be Microsoft’s de-facto replacement for it. Those people are wrong. Teams is not great at helping break down the barriers within an organization and help people form communities or organization-wide working groups. It’s better for fast-paced collaboration within projects or teams.
Yammer, however, is good at those things – but was hamstrung by what seemed like under-investment by Microsoft to solve it’s underlying technology problems – it didn’t use the same platform as the rest of Office 365 and cross-platform functionality like retention and compliance didn’t apply to Yammer in the same way. And it was often seen as a different place for people to go, being more of a distraction rather than a productivity improvement tool.
As you’ll see above – Yammer is coming to Teams (and Outlook) natively and it’s entire interface and back-end is being re-written. Yammer will use Microsoft’s new fluid framework – giving it the most up-to-date interface in the suite, and crucially the terminology used within the product will make sure people using it understand better what is there for. Groups become Communities and I think the name change, combined with better Outlook and Teams integration will give it a much better chance of succeeding. I’m already seeing excitement from my customers embarking on new projects where perhaps six months ago they didn’t “get” Yammer – but now see it’s place as fundamental for a full Microsoft 365 collaboration platform.
Of course – the new Yammer isn’t live yet – so this last one may be one big new announcement I’m a little early in being excited about..
Those were my top five announcements. Let us know what yours are.
For me one pick from last year was Intune’s support of Android ‘Corporate-owned, fully managed user devices’ (aka COBO); it’s enabled us to move away from Windows Mobile to Android and manage them as we’d have wanted. It’s also helped focus attention away from SCCM to Intune, which has proved a wider struggle for an overloaded Ops team.
Also, did SharePoint not deliver anything in 2019? Or OneDrive for Business? And how about Exchange? Your list is very focused on Teams and promises.
It’s focused on my top five – I considered Exchange and of course had some of the list I was working through.. but to be honest, some of those just aren’t the kind of improvements that make a massive difference to most customers. SharePoint – you are right – we had a LOT of new functionality – but are they exciting to most customers? I remain unconvinced – there’s some great SharePoint Online Intranet-in-a-box vendors out-innovating Microsoft in this space (they have to!).
Probably the one that I should have went for that was in my top five originally was Azure Sentinel. That’s one where I’ve been quite surprised at how many customers have a great interest in this and it’s almost been one that has seen an immediate up-take of customers.
In the Azure AD space and Microsoft Endpoint Manager space there’s been a constant stream of small changes but I didn’t have one single new improvement that has been a game changer in the eyes of my customers or people I speak to at conferences and user groups. Obviously Autopilot made a big impact over the course of this year – which it didn’t last year – but it’s technically around two years old and I would struggle to pick out one particular change that became the tipping point to adoption. I think it was a mix of becoming mature enough, the Windows 10 need – and a desire for many organisations from about Q2 2019 onwards to also think about re-working Windows deployments in a more modern way.
I thought that you were focusing on the top new releases? Yammer hasn’t delivered its new UI yet and it remains to be seen whether this has any impact on its penetration within the Office 365 base. Cortex won’t show up until the middle of 2020 and will only be of interest to a percentage of tenants running Office 365 E5. Have you been swayed by the might of the Microsoft marketing machine in believing all the promises made but not yet actual?
These are just my top five – I had many more, but these were the ones that I’ve seen make a real impact – and yes some of this is stuff that’s in preview – and Yammer being one where I’ve not seen it in a tenant yet and might yet eat my words. The upcoming changes both to Yammer and the new Project Cortex are already having an impact on customer projects in the real world – which is fine when stuff is new because big, global rollouts take a while to begin – let alone deliver.
If I was going with the Microsoft marketing machine I’d have written about a top five full of stuff that maybe I had drunk the kool-aid on, but hadn’t actually seen a massive impact. Instead I’ve picked releases (GA mostly, but yes a few preview) where I’ve seen first hand either real-life impact, immediate inclusion in strategy or how businesses have pivoted to include the new stuff.