Microsoft Unveils Its Big Plan To Sell Windows On Per-User Basis (Sort Of)

Microsoft is preparing to make a significant change to the way it sells Windows 7 and Windows 8 to large organizations, adding a per-user licensing option to its Enterprise Agreement volume licensing plan.

Starting Dec. 1, Microsoft will begin a new subscription bundle for organizations with 250 seats or more called Enterprise Cloud Suite (ECS), which consists of Office 365, Enterprise Mobility Suite and Windows client sold on a per-user basis.

This last part, called "Windows Software Assurance per User," is the key addition. Microsoft, in a downloadable document outlining the finer points of the new licensing option, describes it as "an entirely new way to license Windows, putting users at the center of their devices."

[Related: Microsoft Pitching New Volume Licensing Program As Customers' On-Ramp To The Cloud]

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Until now, Microsoft has only sold device-based licensing for Windows. Customers that wanted to access Windows virtual desktops from iPads and Android tablets had to buy its Companion Device License (CDL), which let them do so on up to four devices.

With its new per-user model, Microsoft is doing away with this scheme. Customers will be able to buy Windows Software Assurance per User and use Windows on whatever devices they want -- even ones running iOS and Android.

This is a big shift that reflects Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's goal of getting Microsoft software running on as many devices as possible. It's also a sign of how much Microsoft's thinking has changed since it introduced the Windows CDL in April 2012 in what was widely seen as a tax for iPad and Android devices.

But according to Paul DeGroot, principal analyst at Pica Communications, a Microsoft licensing consultancy in Camano Island, Wash., the per-user Windows option still comes with some strings attached.

Customers will still need to buy a Windows enterprise license for a device before they can buy the per-user option.

"In some cases, the other devices you are using or accessing also need to be licensed. So device licensing hasn't gone away. They have just added user licensing which gives you a bit more flexibility," DeGroot said.

While per-user licensing does solve some longstanding issues with Windows virtual desktops, the fact remains that customers will still have to pay more to obtain the flexibility it promises, according to DeGroot.

Microsoft licensing has always been complex territory, even for the handful of large partners that Microsoft permits to handle licensing transactions. One such partner, SHI, said it's ready to help customers make the transition.

"This complex shift can be quite difficult to understand, given the number of iterations to licensing requirements and models, procurement options and pricing plans," Blake Gollnick, Microsoft practice director at SHI, said in a blog post last week.