|Early Adoption Programs Aid Product Development|
|Aug. 6, 2007|
Many Microsoft customers download betas of upcoming software for testing purposes, but only a select few are invited to participate in earlier and deeper testing and evaluation. Participants, who include both end customers and partners, get an unparalleled opportunity to influence the direction and feature sets of new software, and competition to get into pre-beta programs is often stiff. Participants who are selected must make a serious commitment to testing and feedback, and may be required to supply hardware and run beta software in production environments to give Microsoft the feedback it wants.
Early Adoption and Deployment Programs
For some time, Microsoft has used its Technology Adoption Program (TAP) and Rapid Deployment Program (RDP) to get early feedback on new products and give important customers a heads-up on what the company is doing in their areas of interest.
In general, TAPs occur earlier in the product development cycle than RDPs—usually, a TAP begins when product teams are seeking early feedback on which features are most important to customers. For example, the team developing Office Communications Server 2007 (which Microsoft sometimes refers to as "OCS") started a TAP at about the time the team was considering how to work Voice over IP (VoIP) technology into the product and wanted early customer feedback on that scenario.
The number of TAPs running at any given time will vary, but as of summer 2007, Microsoft had about 60 TAPs and RDPs in place. A single team can have more than one TAP running; the Communications Server team has more than a half-dozen TAPs running, with all participants testing basic features of the product and various customers testing specific subsets of features, such as mobile Web access or the Live Meeting service.
RDPs occur later in the product development cycle and are primarily meant to provide a set of reference customers and installations that will help Microsoft launch the product. These deployments may begin at the last beta or release candidate stage, and Microsoft's goal is to have RDP systems in full production when the product is released to manufacturing, roughly six weeks before its general release to all customers.
What Customers Get
The main attraction for most companies who participate in early adoption programs is the ability to bring new capabilities into production with major assistance from Microsoft. Users of public betas usually get no support from Microsoft, but participants in early adoption programs get extensive support in the following ways:
Participants also have early input on product features, interfaces, APIs, and other elements that are important to their businesses. Communications Server TAP participants, for example, have a weekly conference call with Microsoft where they discuss problems, learn about recent changes to the software, and provide feedback on the features that are most important to them.
In addition, participants in these programs will also be among the first to learn about a product's limitations, slips in the delivery schedule, feature cancellations, and other problems that will influence how—or whether—they will implement the product when it ships.
Microsoft does not pay participants directly, but in some cases the company offers financial assistance toward special hardware or services required for the programs. For example, to test the VoIP features of Communications Server, Microsoft worked with VoIP vendors to supply four different gateways, as well as VoIP handsets, for Communications Server TAP testing.
Getting with the Program
Participation in TAP and RDP programs requires an invitation from Microsoft; although customers can notify Microsoft of their interest, most participants have been nominated by someone in Microsoft's field sales force. The company currently has a pool of about 1,500 customers who have been nominated and have filled out the preliminary agreements; in some cases Microsoft will go outside that list and solicit customers who meet a specific profile that the product team wants to test the product with.
Product teams send notices to Microsoft field staff about future TAP opportunities and collect nominations. Most TAPs have more nominees than they need, and "it helps if someone is fighting for you to get into the program," says Jon Foster, TAP Framework program manager. Most participants are larger customers that have been assigned a Microsoft account manager, who will make the case for their customer's involvement. Account managers may also stay in the communications loop for the duration of the TAP or RDP to reduce the management workload for the product team and ensure that the customer's questions or needs are answered promptly.
All TAP and RDP participants sign an agreement that outlines general terms and conditions governing all TAP and RDPs, such as confidentiality requirements, feedback commitments, partner involvement, and public relations activities, as well as specific agreements covering the products they will be testing. They may also need to sign special-use terms or end-user license agreements that govern their use of the software during the testing process.
Microsoft typically requires a participant's senior management to approve their organization's membership in a TAP or RDP program. This ensures that a company's management is willing to devote the resources that are important to the program's success, such as staff time, hardware, and approval to use beta software in production environments.
Partners also play a significant role in TAP and RDP initiatives, and they are among the most eager participants. Integrators who participate in an early adoption program have a significant advantage over those who do not, with hundreds of hours of experience deploying a product before their competitors even get a chance to try it out.
Because some Microsoft products hit the market with incomplete documentation that can leave even skilled technologists scratching their heads, partners who have participated in deployments and who have access to product teams often know more about how a product works than customers and partners outside of the program can hope to learn—in some cases, Microsoft even asks partners to document key features that the company itself has not covered.
Partners with experience deploying a new product are also most likely to receive early references from Microsoft when customers are ready for deployment. Case studies may mention a partner's involvement in deploying and customizing a new application, and Microsoft's Web site may promote specific companies as "go-to-market" partners for customers who want advice or assistance with the product.
Benefits for Microsoft
Asked for specific examples of how TAP feedback has influenced a product, Dennis Karlinsky, a senior group program manager in charge of TAPs in the product group developing Communications Server, says, "Pretty well every single feature and functionality in the product has been affected by TAP feedback."
Aside from extensive input on specific product features, technical sponsors at Microsoft gain significant insight into deployment from customers and partners who have repeatedly deployed new builds. For example, TAP participants told the Communications Server team that they don't like to repeatedly modify the schema of their Active Directory services, which moved the Communications Server team to focus on "locking down" at an early stage any schema changes necessary to run Communications Server.
Nontechnical issues can also emerge during early adoption programs. For example, the technical staff who operate telephony systems in large organizations may report through an entirely different part of the organization than employees who manage servers and desktops. The Communications ServerTAP clearly showed that any organization planning to implement the VoIP features of Communications Server must ensure that telephony experts are part of the process.
Furthermore, these TAP and RDP deployments take place in environments that reflect actual customer use, rather than in Microsoft labs, where teams typically test their products in isolation from other products that could interfere with interpretation of test results. Although the 20 to 100 customers who commonly participate in a TAP don't represent the full universe of customers who will eventually use the product, they nevertheless help Microsoft identify weaknesses that could appear in real-world deployments.
The references and case studies that Microsoft gets from RDP customers are critical to product launches and promotional events. The company uses examples of actual customer deployments and case studies to convince other customers that the product is safe to deploy and offers tangible business benefits.
More information about the TAP and RDP programs can be found at connect.microsoft.com/TAPintoMicrosoft.