When it comes to the consumerization of IT, Microsoft just doesn’t get it. The company’s software licensing policies have lagged advances in hardware and software for years; and now, an apparent effort to use licensing to give its Surface tablet an edge may backfire on Redmond.
Microsoft and other traditional software vendors have struggled with how to change their licensing rules ever since the advent of virtualization, which divorced software from hardware. Instead of assigning one license per machine, virtualization requires licensing of virtual machines, which are continually being created, moved around, and eliminated.
The rapid adoption of mobile platforms and cloud computing have strained old licensing schemes even more. In fact, a prediction that Dave Buchholz, principal engineer at Intel Corp.'s Intel IT unit, made to me in early 2011 has proved prescient: "As corporate employees start using many different devices -- smartphones, laptops, iPads -- corporations are asking, 'How many licenses am I going to have to buy?' "
Two years ago, Microsoft adjusted its licensing policies in an effort to adapt to virtualization, relaxing licensing requirements for virtual clients. It also extended remote access rights to allow enterprise users that were covered under Windows SA to use “non-corporate devices” -- at that time, mostly PCs and laptops -- to access virtual Windows desktops and Microsoft Office applications hosted on a VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) platform. But the rules were convoluted, confusing, and essentially useless, according to Paul DeGroot, a consultant whose firm, Software Licensing Advisors Inc., specializes in, well, advising clients on software licensing. In parsing the language, DeGroot figures that the these remote access rights only permit “access from untrusted devices over insecure networks, the kind of thing that most corporations will do their level best to block.”
Then last spring, Microsoft tweaked the rules again in preparation for launching Windows 8. Again, the changes are very confusing. (Apparently software licenses are so complex that consultants like DeGroot can make a living deciphering them.)
For example, in the case of Windows RT, the tablet version of Windows 8, here’s what the latest changes boil down to: Corporate users that are covered under Microsoft’s Windows Software Assurance program will be able to use Windows RT tablets with no additional licensing costs. But they will not have access rights from iPads or Android tablets. Those users will be required to buy something called a Companion Device License. (DeGroot gives a good explanation of the rule changes here.)
The Wall Street Journal recently picked up on this change, reporting that Microsoft is using its licensing as a way to give Windows RT-based tablets and its own new Surface tablet an advantage in the enterprise market.
DeGroot told the Journal he’s not aware of any case in which Microsoft has actually enforced these licensing charges, at least not yet. But it’s certainly a worry for CIOs now and in the future. “A coming nightmare scenario for many organizations will be the day that Microsoft asks them how many of their employees access email or work documents from their smartphones or iPads,” said DeGroot.
This type of subtle pressure -- the potential for Microsoft to find (and fine) enterprises out of compliance for trying to accommodate the BYOD trend -- is so twentieth-century. It shows that Microsoft is still stuck in the old client-server world.
One CIO in the Journal blog warns that the action and Microsoft’s general attitude may force him to “engineer [Microsoft] out” of the enterprise. Microsoft does not seem to recognize that the iPad and other tablets have already made significant inroads into the corporate market.
Such backward policies are likely to backfire on the company and further alienate CIOs and corporate users.
[Ed note update: At press time, Microsoft had not responded to a request for comment on the views expressed in this blog. Three days later, a Microsoft spokesperson replied that the company is unable to accommodate the request for comment at this time.]
— Tam Harbert is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.