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Microsoft Windows As A Service Planned?

Microsoft may be working on a cloud-based version of Windows to go alongside Office 365. What would be in it for customers?

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With its Office and server products, Microsoft already straddles the line between the old world of standalone software licenses and on-premises infrastructure, and the new landscape rooted in the cloud. Since at least this year, rumors have periodically claimed Windows could soon follow a similar course, perhaps in a product like Office 365. Those rumors gained a modicum of credibility thanks to last week's discovery of a Microsoft job post that referred to "Windows as a service."

The phrase "Windows as a service" has popped up before in several contexts. Before Azure RemoteApp, which allows Windows Server apps to run on a range of devices, was officially announced as a preview in May, it was described as "Windows as a service" in several pre-release rumors, for instance. But in addition to the recent job posting -- which was first reported by the website Neowin and has since been amended to remove the "Windows as a service" reference -- Microsoft has advertised at least once before for a role related to "Windows as a service." In that case, the job posting described building "the software platform that will allow first- and third-party service providers to onboard their services" to "Microsoft's new consumer membership program." That is, it described responsibilities that don't sound like part of RemoteApp.

[Is time running out for Windows Phone? Read Windows Phone: More High-End Devices Coming Soon.]

When asked if the newest job posting referred to an Azure RemoteApp role, a Microsoft rep said the company has nothing to share.

If Microsoft is preparing something akin to "Windows 365," it could be a welcome move, according to Forrester analyst David Johnson. He told InformationWeek that Forrester analysts expect Microsoft to offer a cloud-based version of Windows eventually.

What would be in it for Microsoft and customers? "When Microsoft has the ability to co-locate virtual desktop infrastructure in the same datacenters or close proximity to the applications they'll be hosting, all kinds of things become interesting," Johnson said, illustrating one potential desktop-as-a-service scenario. With such a service, he pointed out, mobile and remote users could gain much more efficient access to powerful tools and vast amounts of data without today's latency and bandwidth hurdles.

Microsoft might also be exploring new licensing models, he said. Enterprises might find a subscription-based version of Windows convenient when scaling up and down around short-term workers.

Whether Microsoft will pursue these angles is unclear, but the company is undeniably shaking up its Windows delivery system. Traditionally, Microsoft has added major features to Windows in big chunks every three years or so. But since releasing Windows 8 in the late fall of 2012, the company has been pushing its OS development toward the sort of rapid-release update model used by its web and cloud teams. Microsoft released Windows 8.1 in October and Windows 8.1 Update in April. The company has also begun to demand

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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
8/26/2014 | 7:26:39 PM
Re: If Microsoft is all in on the cloud, so is Windows
With Apple offering OS X updates for free and Google offering Chrome OS for free, I have trouble coming up with a price structure for Windows as a service. 

Has Microsoft considered Windows as a loss-leader?
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
8/26/2014 | 4:07:24 PM
Re: Eventually
@jagibbons: Indeed. Wzor, whose account most strongly suggests an OS that actually relies on the cloud for extended functionality, brought up this question, and said he didn't know the answer. That could imply his report is B.S., that he doesn't have deep enough Microsoft access for more details (that's seemed to have been the case before), or that Microsoft is still tinkering with this aspect.

But maybe there will be benefits that will compensate for lack of offline functionality, at least for some users. It's not clear, as I mentioned in my other post in this thread, whether this could be a mainstream product, or some kind of niche option designed for mobile enterprise users and institutions. I still think that in the short term, Microsoft's biggest Windows move will probably just be the switch to a rapid release update model-- but these job postings make me wonder if something even more unexpected might be in the offing too.

Here's my bet: If Microsoft were to release some cloud-focused version of Windows, it will have to have decent offline capability; otherwise, Microsoft will look ridiculous for having perpetuated the stereotype that Chromebooks need the Internet to be productive. It's not quite as ridiculous as Steve Ballmer saying the iPhone would achieve "zero market share," but imagine this: Microsoft says Chromebooks are garbage, and then starts pushing a version of Windows that suffers from the same alleged flaws as Chrome OS?! How would Nadella or Myerson or whoever talk his way through that?
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
8/26/2014 | 3:54:56 PM
Re: Eventually
@Terry: Those are the same questions I've run into whenever someone's said, "Office went cloud, so Windows will too." That Windows will be intimately tied to the cloud via services (e.g. OneDrive, Skype, etc.) is beyond serious dispute. But conceding that point isn't the same thing as expecting Windows 365. As you say, how would such a service be implemented? Via thin clients as we currently think of them? But if Microsoft's goals for the product are more mainstream, how that work? While the idea has appeal at a high level, it's hard to sort out the bits and pieces, unless Microsoft ends up introducing it as a very niche service that might grow over time.

The rumors are all over the place. Some describe it as an enterprise-oriented virtual desktop service, some describe it as a mainstream option in which something like Windows 7 Starter comes on the device, and people add extra bits - for a price - through the cloud. Some of these reports also mention subscriptions.

While I can imagine use cases for some of this, I see enormous potential for consumers to feel nickel-and-dimed if Microsoft tries to make this flavor of Windows the mainstream option. Yeah, you can draw comparisons between this device and something like an Android tablet or iPad, in which the OS is factored into the initial device price, can be augmented with cloud features, and isn't ever really a cost concern again as long as the device remains technically up-to-snuff. But those platforms walked into new markets, without legacy customers to drag along. Not so for Windows. I think the importance of this distinction has already manifested in many ways, such as users' refusal to ditch Windows XP. It's obvious that Microsoft wants to deploy Windows updates the way it deploys Azure and Office updates, in a continual stream of improvements, rather than discrete chunks. But do subscriptions follow? Does it make sense to locate part of the OS in the cloud, and part of it on the device, as WZor seems to suggest? I guess we'll see.

What I know is this: The job postings are legitimate, and do not seem to describe an existing Windows service or product. Microsoft also modified the wording of the most recent job posting as soon as the media started catching wind of it. Could be benign stuff that just happens to look suspicious because it overlaps with rumors. But it also looks like Microsoft is planning something.
User Rank: Author
8/26/2014 | 11:53:10 AM
Re: If Microsoft is all in on the cloud, so is Windows
Perhaps Satya Nadella is the CEO with the background to sell this idea to the troops internally.
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
8/25/2014 | 9:14:48 PM
If Microsoft is all in on the cloud, so is Windows
To become an "all-in" company when it comes to cloud, Microsoft will almost certainly have to provide Windows as a service.
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