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How does the Office Insider program work?

The Office Insider program can benefit organizations that want as much lead time as possible to see what new features Microsoft plans to release for its Office 365 platform.

Patches, updates and new features can bring benefits -- and disorder -- to organizations and users.

Microsoft's Office Insider program is one way a business can plan for coming changes to established applications and services. Through its early access program, which provides users with the imminent fixes and changes, Microsoft has expanded its testing platform to actual users who receive vital foresight that can ease implementation efforts.

The Office Insider program might not be the right fit for every organization, so understanding how it works can help business leaders decide if they should enroll.

How Office Insider helps Microsoft and its customers

The software as a service (SaaS) model profoundly changed the software development process. In the traditional model, a software company would release a discrete product. Now, many companies use the cloud service model in which features and functionality arrive continuously to users who pay a regular subscription fee.

Smaller updates come faster, and users never install or configure the updates. But developers -- the SaaS providers -- need testers to investigate these changes and report any problems.

The Office Insider program offers early access to Microsoft products that are currently under development. Participants receive and use these preview versions to test and give feedback to Microsoft. The company collects information about any issues that Microsoft's development team can use to correct bugs, overcome compatibility issues and resolve other potential flaws before the product release.

Office Insider program versus other releases

Microsoft uses a tiered approach to SaaS development for services such as Office 365. The development cycle starts with the feature teams responsible for fixes and new coding. The updated service then rolls out to the internal Office 365 team, and then the rest of the Microsoft organization.

Because Microsoft uses similar terminology for different release channels -- and occasionally changes those names -- it's a challenge to understand how the Office Insider program relates to generally available releases.

Because Microsoft uses similar terminology for different release channels -- and occasionally changes those names -- it's a challenge to understand how the Office Insider program relates to generally available releases.

Office Insider is for Office 365 subscribers and comes in two levels, Insider and Monthly Channel (Targeted). The Insider level is for companies that want the earliest versions of the software that might have some features in flux. Microsoft doesn't support the builds at this level, which makes using the software more of a risk. Microsoft used to call this level Insider Fast.

Users of the Monthly Channel (Targeted) level get fewer updates -- typically a new build comes out once per month -- that are more stable and supported by Microsoft. The company previously called this level Insider Slow.

Once Microsoft completes its testing process and releases the software, Office 365 customers can ease the rollout of the updated services by selecting a release option -- standard or targeted release -- which they set in the Office 365 admin center.

With a targeted release choice, select users or the entire organization get the latest changes before they go to the worldwide release stage. Users get a first look at the features and functionality and send Microsoft feedback to shape the future development of the service. This option helps IT ready help desk personnel for changes and evaluate compliance and security measures. By comparison, the default standard release refers to product updates released to all Office 365 subscribers.

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What do you think are the benefits -- and drawbacks -- of the Office Insider program?