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TechEd: Microsoft reveals new Office features available only in the cloud

Concrete demonstration of new priorities

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Microsoft showed off new Office features at TechEd 2014, but some of them will never be available to customers who don't embrace the cloud version of the software suite, Office 365, and the company will take its time bringing others to market for Office Server users.

During the keynote at the annual conference, attendees saw a demo of Office Graph, a feature that monitors users' behaviors and makes it possible to intelligently sort available data so that the most relevant is presented.

That sorting requires machine learning, which in turn requires massive CPU power available only in the Office 365 cloud, says Julia White, head of Office technical marketing for Microsoft, who demonstrated Office Graph.

"So when I talked about Office Graph and that intelligence fabric, essentially that's just possible because of massive compute power [in the cloud]. It's because we can update the service with learning every single day that that's possible," White says.

Other features also will be delayed for Office Server customers. "Some of that means it's coming first to Office 365 and you'll see it come to SharePoint and Lync and Office on-premises later but some of it is just not possible in an on-premises approach," she says.It's not capricious favoritism toward Office 365 customers, White says.

"Our philosophy is anything we technically can ship in servers, we will. We want our server customers and our cloud customers to have as much as we can ship to them. If it's possible technically and it's feasible then we'll put it in the servers."

At the same time she acknowledges that Office 365 having fuller features should prompt businesses to consider it over on-prem servers. "So at the highest level, if your readers haven't started thinking about how they're moving to the cloud, they haven't gotten started with any aspect of Office 365, they really, really should," she says.

Another feature White talked about that won't wind up in Office Server is called Clutter and is scheduled to come out later this year. Clutter monitors information coming at users via email and analyzes what is received vs. what is actually acted on. If something is read, replied to, edited or otherwise actively responded to, it gains higher relevance than things simply received. After a learning period, Clutter sorts out information that just doesn't get acted upon and drops it in a Clutter folder.

The machine learning aspect is too compute intensive to include on a server version of Office, she says.

White demonstrated a feature called Groups that allows users to set up groups of colleagues to share information while working on projects. That information can be drawn and distributed by Yammer, Outlook, Lync and SharePoint working in concert.

While that combination might be possible via on-prem servers, as a practical matter it's unlikely a business would make the necessary upgrades without considerable delay.

"We'll ship Groups in our server technology, but the magic of groups and when it becomes most useful for the businesses is when you have that across [all the communication servers] you're using," White says.

"For an on-premises customer that would mean I'm ready to sit down and say I'm ready to upgrade my Exchange Server, my SharePoint Server, my Lync Server and my Office Client right now, at the same time or really close to it, to get that holistic Groups experience everywhere I go. Yes, it's possible but I don't know many customers who do that.

"So you're going to see things light up in these horizontal ways in Office 365 that is just different than how people do things on premises," White says.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.



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