At its Convergence 2015 event today in Atlanta, Microsoft today launched a technical preview of Office 2016 for the Windows desktop. To download applications in the suite, you’ll need to sign up for a business profile on Microsoft Connect.

At the same time, Microsoft today also launched a technical preview of Skype for Business. You can download the preview now directly from Microsoft’s TechNet Evaluation Center.

Office 2016 for Windows

Office 2016 for Windows has been in private preview for several months, though anyone could request access if they were so inclined. Microsoft today is expanding the program to its commercial Office 365 customers, specifically targeting IT pros and developers interested in testing the upcoming release.

Microsoft didn’t detail its end-user enhancements planned for this release (that will happen “at a later date”). Since this is a business preview, the company instead offered a brief summary of the improvements meant for IT pros and developers:

  • Data Loss Protection (DLP) — In addition to Exchange, Outlook, OneDrive for Business, and SharePoint, DLP is now coming to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. IT admins can thus centrally create, manage, and enforce polices for content authoring and document sharing. End users will see policy tips or sharing restrictions when the apps detect a potential policy violation.
  • MAPI-HTTP protocol. The RPC-based sync has been replaced with a new Internet-friendly MAPI-HTTP protocol that supports Exchange/Outlook connectivity.
  • Foreground network calls. The use of foreground network calls has been eliminated to ensure that Outlook stays responsive on unreliable networks.
  • Multi-factor authentication. Outlook now supports multi-factor authentication through integration with the Active Directory Authentication Library (ADAL).
  • Email delivery performance. The amount of time it takes to download messages, display the message list, and show new email after resuming from hibernation has been cut down.
  • Lean storage footprint. New settings allow users to better manage storage by only retaining 1, 3, 7, 14, or 30 days of mail on the device.
  • Search. The reliability, performance, and usability of Outlook search has been improved, and the FAST-based search engine has been integrated in Exchange.
  • Better network traffic management. A new Background Intelligence Transfer Service (BITS) now helps prevent congestion on the network. BITS throttles back the use of bandwidth when other critical network traffic is present.
  • Enhanced distribution management. Integration with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) has been improved to allow IT admins to efficiently download and distribute monthly Office updates using the native SCCM features.
  • Flexible update management. Admins can manage the pace at which they receive feature updates and bug fixes while continuing to receive regular security updates.
  • Simplified activation management. The Office 365 Admin Portal now allows admins to manage device activations across users.
  • Accessibility. Keyboard accessibility for high-value Excel features like PivotTables and Slicers have been added and a number of readability issues in Outlook have been fixed. A new dark theme for users with visual impairments has been introduced.
  • Information Rights Management (IRM) — IRM protection has been extended to Visio files, enabling both online and offline protection of Visio diagrams.

Despite all of the above, Microsoft emphasized this early build “doesn’t yet contain all the features we’re planning to ship in the final product.” The company promised to push new features via monthly updates during the preview program.

Skype for Business

The reason today’s Skype technical preview is tied to Office 2016 is simple: Skype for Business will be part of the suite. Skype for Business is built right in: Features like presence, IM, voice and video calls, and online meetings are all available directly in Office applications. A full changelog is available here.

That said, here is how Microsoft distinguishes the two previews:

The Skype for Business technical preview announced today is for the new Skype for Business client rolling out to current Lync customers starting next month. The Office 16 preview announced today, which also includes Skype for Business, currently provides an advanced look for IT pros and developers at the next version of Office for Windows desktop.

In November, Microsoft first announced plans to replace Lync with Skype for Business. The company said at the time this launch was slated for the first half of 2015.

What’s next

Office 2016 for Windows will be launching in the second half of this year. Update: Although Office 2016 for Mac is slated to arrive “this summer,” Microsoft told VentureBeat that the company doesn’t expect the Windows version to debut in the exact same timeframe. Timing simply comes down to the development cycles of each suite.

Microsoft’s hope is to give its business customers a combination of the familiar Skype consumer experience with the security, compliance, and control features required by enterprises. In April, Skype for Business will become generally available to business customers with a new client, new server, and updated service within Office 365.

Once both are generally available, Microsoft will continue with regular updates for both. Today’s previews are meant to woo business customers into trying the new versions before they are ready so they can give the company feedback.