Office Client Connections: Are you covered?

office-365-logo-100047935-largeWhen Microsoft introduced Office 365, subscribers stopped worrying about new versions.  As long as you were a subscriber, your monthly updates would deliver the newest versions of the client applications, and not just monthly patches.  It certainly made life simpler.  Still a lot of people prefer to purchase software, and not subscribe to it.  That is perfectly valid, and Microsoft continues to offer that option.

Where it gets a bit tricky is when customers who purchase the software do so once, and then ride that purchased application suite forever.  Microsoft will, at a certain point, stop supporting older versions.  While there are some critics who would say this is a money grab – just a cheap way of getting people to buy the software again, I definitely disagree with that. 

There is a tipping point in the lifecycle of a piece of software when it becomes more expensive to support than it is worth.  In the 1960s and 1970s, IBM guaranteed that they would support their mainframe computers for seven years.  Those were multi-million dollar systems that  companies were investing in, not a $500 piece of software.  When an application is new – especially an application like Microsoft Office, with over one billion users worldwide – the company has to support it.  They look for vulnerabilities, they create patches, they fix bugs.  They continue to do this for the lifecycle of the application.  For Microsoft Windows the lifecycle is much longer than the application, which is often only 3-4 years.  They include these costs when establishing the price of the suite.

When the vast majority of customers have upgraded to a newer version, it would still cost a lot of money to continue to support older technology… and fewer people will benefit from it.  If the company has promised to provide support for a certain number of years, then despite the fewer customers benefiting, they will still do it.

microsoft365-enterprise-adminstrator-expert-600x600The End of Life date for Microsoft Office 2013 was February, 2017.  There are still plenty of users out there using the older suite, and why not?  It still does everything they needed it to do, right?  They may not have all of the bells and whistles offered in Microsoft Office 2019, but they figure that good enough is always good enough.  Those who understand these things will also have weighed the importance of security patches, and they made the decision (conscious or otherwise) to trust that the majority of security flaws will have been found and patched in the four years of lifecycle.

Now here’s where it might get tricky for some… most of the applications in the Microsoft Office suite can easily live in a bubble.  While I love that Microsoft Office Word and Excel now allow me to open, edit, and save documents directly to my OneDrive for Business, a lot of people still store their documents and spreadsheets on their local hard drives, so the external access features do not appeal to them.  However, a tool like Microsoft Office Outlook is meant to work with external servers.  It’s entire raison d’être is to retrieve information from and send information to external servers.  Even though the Outlook client has not been supported in nearly 3.5 years, it is still able to communicate with the online servers.  Why?  Because Microsoft has a different lifecycle policy for servers than it does for applications.

Microsoft is a very large organization, and it does not turn on a dime.  Likewise, it does not expect its clients to do so either.  As such, when they reminded us in an e-mail this morning that “…Office 2013 clients’ connections to commercial Office 365 services will not be supported after October 13, 2020” they were not telling us “Hey guys, we know it is only three months away, but on October 13 you won’t be able to use your Office 2013 clients with our servers anymore.”  What they were saying was this: “We told you on April 20, 2017 (three and a half years in advance) that on October 13 of this year, you would no longer be able to use the Office 2013 clients with our servers anymore.” (See article)

To be clear, Microsoft is not saying that if you have an on-premise Exchange Server that you will not be able to use the Office 2013 client anymore.  This is about their Office 365 online services, which they are modernizing, and for which maintaining support of the legacy applications would cause an undue burden to them.  As such, in that article posted in April, 2017, Microsoft stated that: “Starting October 13, 2020, it will be necessary to have Office 365 ProPlus or Office perpetual in mainstream support to connect to Office 365 services.”  They will no longer be supporting connections from older application versions that are no longer in mainstream support.

Is that reasonable?  That depends on your point of view.  From Microsoft’s perspective, it is reasonable to say that they do not want to provide back-end support for applications that they are no longer supporting on the front-end.  From the end user’s point of view, it is reasonable to say that ‘Hey, I bought this application from you, and should be able to use it forever.’  Unfortunately, the end user is wrong in one thing.  You never buy software from Microsoft… you license it.  You have the right to install it on your computer, and I suppose if you want to configure Outlook as an SMTP or IMAP client (look them up if you do not know) then you can still use it that way… but in 2017 Microsoft told you that effective October, 2020 you will no longer be able to establish an Outlook Client connection to their servers.

Life moves forward, and so do computers… in fact, computers move forward much faster than most other facets of life.  If you question Microsoft’s decisions in this, I would point out that IBM lost the PC race (to Compaq, HP, Toshiba, and other compatible manufacturers… not to Apple) because they tried to maintain that seven year lifecycle promise in the era of $3000 PCs like they did in the era of multi-million dollar mainframes.  They insisted on maintaining compatibility across all of their software and PCs with the 8-bit Intel 8088 processor… so while Compaq et al went forward with building newer PCs on the 16-bit Intel 80286 processor, IBM stood their ground.  They partnered with a software company to develop an operating environment on the 8088 that would modernize the world… except the limitations of the 8-bit CPU held that program back, so that software partner, while continuing to work with IBM on OS/2 in Tampa and Armonk, spun off another team to build a similar operating environment that would take advantage of the 16-bit bus of the 80286.  The company in question was… Microsoft.  The operating environment they built back in New Mexico? Microsoft Windows.  The result?  A tremendous dive in the value of Big Blue, and Microsoft is now one of the most successful companies in the world.

Microsoft had a front-row seat to why it is important to move forward.  With all that on the table, asking them to hold back for a $500 piece of software you purchased seven years ago is no longer in the same ballpark as reasonable. 

So, if you are one of the customers (and there are probably millions) still using Microsoft Office Outlook 2013, and you are using it to connect to your Office 365 mail server, know that your days are numbered, and in just under three months your connections will stop working. 

Do you have to go out and buy a new package, or worse… subscribe to the Office 365 client?  Not necessarily.  While I certainly prefer working that way, I also know that a lot of people would rather not spend the monthly fees.  If you already have the Office 365 mail account, then you also have access to Outlook Web Access… you can connect to it from your web browser (https://outlook.office.com/mail/inbox) and have all of the functionality… minus the offline client.

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