Microsoft dabbles in per-user Windows licensing

But it's still a long way from licensing Windows as a subscription, say experts

For the first time, Microsoft will offer user-based Windows licenses to enterprises, a change one expert called "substantial" but another downplayed as unlikely to have much of an impact.

Neither believed that the changes would herald Windows-by-subscription any time soon, even though Microsoft licenses its "rent-not-buy" Office 365 by the user, not by each device.

"This is the first time that Microsoft has introduced 'user' with Windows from a basic licensing terminology basis," said Daryl Ullman, co-founder and chief consulting officer of Emerset Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in helping companies negotiate software licensing deals. "So in that regard, this is a substantial change.

"Windows licensing has always been device based. Even with the introduction of Office 365, Windows stayed on a device-based metric," Ullman continued. "This is more of an alignment to the Office 365 per-user metric. But I don't think this is the same case as Office 365. I don't think Windows is there yet [on subscription-based licensing]."

As Ullman said, Windows has traditionally been licensed on a per-device level; if a worker has two PCs, say a desktop and a laptop, both needed to have their own license, those licenses almost always pre-installed on the machine by the computer maker but often replaced by a corporate standard edition once in the workplace.

Office 365, however, relies on licenses where rights are given to each user, with generous terms that allow them to run copies of the application bundle on up to five personal computers as well as on mobile devices like tablets and smartphones.

Instead of a kick-off for a Windows subscription, the recent licensing changes were related to rights Microsoft sells for accessing Windows in a virtual environment, or VM. Microsoft revealed the user-based licenses in the October edition of its "Volume Licensing Product Use Rights," referred to as the "PUR" by licensing experts like Ullman.

The two user-based Windows licenses Microsoft will sell are Windows Enterprise Software Assurance (SA) and Windows Virtual Desktop Access (VDA).

In some ways, the new licenses are replacements for older ones, in others a restating of previous offerings. In a few instances, they include new or liberalized rights.

"Overall, I'm not sure that these changes add any dramatic new rights, and there seems to be even more overlap and duplication in VDI licensing that most customers will have a lot of trouble fighting through," said Paul DeGroot, principal at Pica Communications, a consulting firm that specializes in deciphering Microsoft's licensing practices.

DeGroot's analysis of the new user-based licenses revealed that Microsoft is dropping what it called the "Windows Companion Subscription License" (CSL), which let someone with a Windows Enterprise PC covered by Software Assurance use up to four other devices to access VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure), a service of Windows Server 2012 R2 that allows workers to call up their corporate desktop from a datacenter and display it on other devices, often tablets or out-of-office PCs. The Windows Enterprise SA Per User Add-on, which will probably cost between $45 and $60 per user per year, replaces CSL, said DeGroot.

Rather than limit the number of devices able to access VDI, the new licenses allow "any device used by a Licensed User," a change DeGroot called "somewhat more liberal."

"What struck me as strange was that there was no limitation on the number of devices," chimed in Ullman, who had enough difficulty parsing the new rights that he wondered if the new language was, in fact, an oversight. "But Microsoft is pretty sharp, they don't miss anything on licensing."

DeGroot also pointed out that the new user-based licenses removed restrictions on what Microsoft calls "roaming rights," or the ability to access a corporate-managed OS and desktop environment from outside the office walls.

"It would seem to permit someone with this user license to use a home device or any device at work, as long as they met the requirements to be a licensed user," DeGroot asserted.

The user-centric licenses are also more expansive for using "Windows To Go," a right available only for Windows Enterprise with Software Assurance, where a corporate-created image of Windows is put on an USB drive. Plugging the flash drive into another device creates a temporary desktop identical to what employees see on their office machines.

Although Microsoft dropped the label "Windows To Go" from its October licensing layout, the user licenses let workers put images on up to two USB drives, then use them on "any device," rather than limit the functionality to only specifically-licensed devices.

But the big take-away from both Ullman and DeGroot was the added complexity of the license changes, and for Ullman in particular, the potential for major misconceptions and misinterpretations.

"I think this will drive a lot of confusion, because once organizations start discussing Windows Enterprise on a per-user basis, they're going to think of Office 365, and perhaps interpret [Windows Enterprise] as having the same benefits," said Ullman. "I'm not sure that Microsoft hasn't increased the complexity and the possibility of misunderstanding within organizations that could backfire on Microsoft on a compliance level."

The rights assigned to user-based Windows licenses, Ullman stressed, "were not the same as with Office 365."

While the two experts agreed that the user-based licenses would have little impact on how corporations license Windows for use on devices to access VDI, Ullman was more bullish on the potential path Microsoft seemed to unveil.

"This is a step in the right direction, the first step and first take toward Windows on a per-user basis," said Ullman, who pointed out that historically Microsoft makes small-sized moves, then iterates on them.

"We'll see changes as we go forward," Ullman promised.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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