If you were one of those churlish people who replied “yeah, right ... when pigs fly” when Microsoft announced a few weeks ago that it was going to be more transparent about its release cycle for Office 365, then eat your words.

Last night and out of the blue, Microsoft published a public roadmap for business for the development of Office 365 over the coming months. While, the company admitted only some of the details of its plans are included, the level of detail it provides is impressive. It has also announced the availability of an early release program called First Release.

What Comes Next

After many months of criticism over the unpredictability of its Office 365 releases, Microsoft has finally got the point. It has outlined a product development program that will be updated as news becomes available.

Ultimately, this is a key requirement for Office 365 customers, who are starting to be deployed in all corners of the enterprise, and for IT manager and company directors, who need to map how Office 365 will expand across the business. For Microsoft, it also makes sense because companies will now also be able to plan how much they will spend and what they will spend it on.

Everyone with a soft-spot for Microsoft is  a winner here. In a blog post about the roadmap by Jake Zborowski, group product manager for Office 365, there are some interesting insights as to why the penny finally dropped. Zborowski said it was the acquisition of Yammer that had some unexpected effects on the Office 365 team:

The most significant change we’re making is in how we communicate updates and provide a forward-looking view of our service plans. We’ve learned a lot from our Yammer team on how customers expect communication in a fast-paced, services world, and we got great feedback from customers like you at the SharePoint and MEC conferences on our transparency for future investments in our business services."

Microsoft is committing itself to publicizing what it is doing and what it will do with Office 365, before it actually does it.

The other significant point to note is that he has confirmed that new cadence of Office 365 releases will be significantly faster than they have been in the past. This has been mooted over the past few months but here, Zborowski confirms it:

First, many of you are really excited about the new update cadence, specifically the ability to consume change in small chunks, our responsiveness to your feedback, and fast access to the high value of the new services and features."

All this came together last night with the launch of theOffice 365 for business public roadmap. According to Microsoft, it provides a few months’ view of new features, enhancements, and major updates. In some cases it will even communicate upcoming releases even further in advance than a few months.

In fact, from here on in, at least with Office 365, we will no longer have to pay any attention to rumor, or gossip: “The public roadmap will be your best source of truth for product enhancements coming to the service,” Zborowski said.

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Me First

The early release program, which has been baptized First Release, will get the ball rolling. First Release gives customers who opt-in the opportunity to get a small selection of significant enhancements to the Office 365 user experience, SharePoint Online and Exchange Online, before anyone else. As explained:

Learning Opportunities

They will receive new, qualifying feature updates first, a minimum of two weeks before customers in our standard release group. However, there is a caveat.Updates to Lync Online, Exchange Online Protection, Office 365 ProPlus or other related services are not included in the First Release program, at least initially. Existing Office 365 customers, who have not signed up for First Release, will all be included as part of the standard release group, and will get updates two weeks after they become available customers singed-up to the First Release program."

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Announcements about Office 365 will be made initially on Message Center.

Roadmap Clarification

While both the public roadmap and the First Release program will apply to the commercial and academic multi-tenant services, it will not apply to the Office 365 for Government Community Cloud.

And First Release only covers is a small set of significant updates. The majority of updates will be delivered globally to all customers. The roadmap does not cover Office 365 home or personal plans.

A quick look at the roadmap shows that there are currently 35 projects in development that include the Oslo and Office Graph features, document collaboration in Outlook, Groups for Office 365 and increasing OneDrive for Business Storage to 1TB.

Under “Rolling Out,” Microsoft lists 10 updates that are not yet available to all applicable customers. Among those: customizable SharePoint Online navigation bar, document conversations for OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online and OWA for Android.

There are 13 releases that have been classified as fully launched.