M365 Business means free Windows 10 upgrades, but for business only

Companies get to keep the upgrades to Windows 10 Pro, says Microsoft

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Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

Microsoft has confirmed that upgrade licenses to Windows 10 Pro that businesses obtain from the free preview of Microsoft 365 Business (M365) will remain in place. That's true even if the customer doesn't transition to a paid plan.

Also, companies that do subscribe to new Windows/Office suite combo when it's available, then later cancel the subscription or otherwise exit the plan, will be allowed to retain the Windows 10 licenses.

"Customers will be able to keep their upgraded license to Windows 10," a company spokeswoman said in an email reply to questions about M365 Business, including the preview set to begin on Aug. 2.

The confirmation that customers will preserve their upgraded licenses means that Microsoft sees M365 Business as yet another way to get Windows 10 onto more PCs. More specifically, Microsoft probably views the plan as a foot in the door, a precursor to the customer subscribing to the more expensive and inclusive Microsoft 365 Enterprise.

"It may actually be an issue of upgrading from [Windows 10] Pro to [Microsoft 365] Enterprise (E3) to [Microsoft 365] Enterprise E5," wrote Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, in an email. "[Customers] need [Windows 10] Enterprise at the E5 level to get Defender Advanced Threat Protection."

A key component of the $20 per user per month M365 Business subscription is an upgrade to Windows 10 Pro from Windows 7 Professional or Windows 8.1 Pro. Windows 10 Pro is the least expensive business-grade edition, but the top-tiered version pre-installed on new PCs. (Windows 10 Enterprise, the most capable edition, is installed as an upgrade to Pro, usually by a firm's IT staff, on just-acquired PCs or those systems already in place.)

That upgrade is critical if customers are to get their money's worth from M365 Business: IT can manage Windows 10 devices only through the plan's control panel. While Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 can certainly run the Office 365 Business Premium suite of applications and services -- another major part of M365 Business -- equipping those machines with the latter would simply set fire to $7.50 per user per month (the difference between M365 Business and Office 365 Business Premium).

Letting customers retain the upgraded Windows 10 Pro licenses, even after bailing from the preview or dropping a subscription, will be in step with other Microsoft decisions regarding the version. The Windows 10 Enterprise E3 and E5 plans, as well as the just-renamed Microsoft 365 Enterprise E3 and E5 plans, also come with upgrades to Windows 10 Pro from Windows 7 Professional or Windows 8.1 Pro. The upgrades were, like those for M365 Business, permanent if customers departed the subscriptions.

"When a subscription license expires ... the Windows 10 Enterprise device seamlessly steps back down to Windows 10 Pro," Microsoft stated in a support document.

Microsoft has never given a reason for its largess, but one has been implied: By leaving the PCs running Windows 10 Pro, rather than forcing users to reinstall the original Windows 7 or 8.1, Microsoft makes it easier for customers to later renew a subscription and return to the rent-not-buy fold.

The company has repeatedly signaled that it is willing to give away upgrades to Windows 10 from Windows 7 (set to retire in January 2020) and Windows 8.1 (January 2023) as long as, first of all, it's certain those upgrades go only to business customers, not consumers, and second, that those business customers are, at some point, potential subscribers to the pricy Enterprise E3 or E5 plans.

Why?

Simply put, Microsoft's most serious software-as-a-subscription (SaaS) efforts have focused on increasingly costly plans, as evidenced by pushing Office 365 to the new, higher-priced E5 level, then in creating Windows Enterprise and M365 Enterprise. Thirteen months ago, Microsoft's priciest SaaS plan was the $35 per user per month Office 365 E5, which runs customers $420 annually for each covered employee. Now the company's top-line SaaS plan is Microsoft 365 Enterprise E5, whose predecessor cost around $54 per user per month, says ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, or $648 each year for each worker.

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