Does Office 2016 have a role to play in the channel?

Sean McGrath asks whether the desktop suite has a future in Microsoft's cloud-focused world

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: October 2015

Microsoft will release its new Office 2016 suite of desktop applications on September 22, but with the Redmond firm’s head so firmly in the clouds, is there a compelling reason for partners to take notice?

The answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’.

When Satya Nadella took the helm of Microsoft at the start of 2014, he wrote and email to employees, saying: “Our job is to ensure that Microsoft thrives in a mobile and cloud-first world.”

While many disregarded the words as the clichéd ramblings of a new CEO, Nadella has remained true to his ‘cloud-first’ philosophy, prioritising not only Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure business, but betting the house on Office 365. And the bet appears to be paying off.

Office 365 has become Microsoft’s fastest growing business of all time, and recently overtook Salesforce as the most deployed app on Okta. Both consumer and business subscribers on growing by the quarter and the revenues are slowly beginning to trickle down to the bottom line.

Looking through Nadella’s cloud-focussed lens then, does the desktop suite really have a future?

The general consensus amongst beta testers seems to be that while Office 2016 is stable and perfectly usable, the most significant updates are designed for Office 365 users.

For example, Outlook 2016 now supports Office 365 Groups, a new feature that enables group members to easily connect with the colleagues, information and applications across the Office estate. However, in order for the feature to work, you need to be an Office 365 subscriber.

Clutter is another example. Using machine learning, Clutter watches your actions to determine the messages you are likely to ignore. As less important messages arrive, they are automatically moved to the Clutter folder. It’s a neat feature that actually works, but – you guessed it – Clutter is not available to folks stuck in the 20th century.

The reality is that Office 2016 is less of a major release and more of a final farewell to the on-premise applications of yesteryear. For Office 365 users, it’s a worthy upgrade; for everyone else, it’s little more than a gateway drug, designed to remind you what you’re missing out on.

Where does Office fit into the channel these days?

Office 365 has been a tricky product for the channel to wrap its head around. For a start, it combines all of Microsoft’s productivity applications and Exchange into a single package. This has uprooted the very foundations on which many Microsoft partners had built their business – namely Managed Service Providers and System Integrators.

As well practically wiping out the Hosted Exchange industry overnight, Microsoft bid aggressively on fixed-fee migration services, making it difficult for partners to find where exactly their value-add was. Many partners were left feeling frustrated and abandoned.

Thankfully, Microsoft has changed its tune in recent months. At the Worldwide Partner Conference in July, Microsoft came to town with a much more channel-friendly approach. The firm has introduced a series of rebates focused on selling cloud services and introduced the new Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) programme, which allows certified resellers to take ownership of the billing and support relationship, thus reclaiming a role in the Office ecosystem.

But many of the partners that have got on board the O365 train have struggled to fit the smorgasbord of services into their sales portfolio. Writing on a blog post earlier this year, Microsoft’s senior product marketing manager Caroline Stanford admitted that it was a difficult concept to push.

"One thing we often hear in contrast to some of our competitors is that our line-up of products is too complicated, and navigating what to sell [is] too difficult for our partners," she said, adding that the best way to categorise the customer's needs.

"Our experience with top performing partners has shown that the vast majority of selling situations fall into the three big categories [...] customers coming to you for Office, customers looking for email solutions, and customers who want to 'move to the Cloud' in a more holistic sense, and simple frameworks can help you quickly identify the right solution to pitch."

If you haven’t already, get on board

For partners hoping for some form of salvation in the new Office 2016 suite, there is none to be found. Microsoft is marching unapologetically towards a cloud-only existence and Office 2016 is nothing more than a sojourn on its journey.

Read more on Cloud Computing Services