Microsoft talks up Windows 10 for business, but questions mount

Microsoft on Friday dribbled out a bit more information about how enterprises will be able to deploy and update Windows 10, answering some questions but leaving analysts asking more.

"I'm still not 100% clear on what the options are for business customers that want to either land on long-term service branches, versus those that want to move behind, but fairly close, to the consumer user base," said Al Gillen of IDC in an email Saturday.

Gillen was talking about the Friday disclosure of the names for the two update tracks that enterprises will be offered for Windows 10. In the Jan. 30 blog post, Jim Alkove, director of program management for Microsoft's enterprise group, tapped the tracks as "Current branch for business" and "Long-term servicing branch."

The names were among the few pieces of news in Alkove's 1,650-word post that either had not been previously discussed by Microsoft or predicted by analysts.

Microsoft's business customers want to know how the Redmond, Wash. company plans to accommodate them with Windows 10, the later-this-year OS that will feature radical changes in updating and upgrading.

Rather than rely on its decades-old practice of rolling out a new operating system every three years, Microsoft will stick with Windows 10 for much, much longer, updating the software on a frequent schedule with not only security fixes -- offered monthly since 2003 -- but also new features, new functionality and UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) changes and improvements.

The revamp, which experts have called Microsoft's biggest-ever change to its update and upgrade process, is integral to the firm's "Windows as a service" strategy.

While most consumers will receive these updates -- which may come as often as monthly -- automatically via Windows Update, the mechanism already used to deliver security patches, businesses will be leery of such a quick cadence. Historically, enterprises have been conservative in how they adopt new OSes for their workers' personal computers, worried about meeting regulatory requirements and new costs to train employees when software morphs. Corporations also usually test updates on a subset of systems before widely deploying those changes to insure that workflow and applications do not break.

A monthly update schedule is simply too rapid for most businesses if they're to continue applying those long-set practices.

Microsoft knows this. It heard as much from commercial customers last year when it originally required that they update from Windows 8.1 to Windows 8.1 Update within 30 days or forego security updates. IT pushed back, and within days Microsoft recanted, extending the deadline for commercial customers to 120 days.

Thus the two tracks aimed at businesses, which Alkove first painted in broad strokes in September 2014.

Stay current, but go slow(er)

The Current branch for business (CBB) is meant to give enterprises time -- although Microsoft has yet to say how much time -- to test and deploy Windows 10 updates. But CBB will clearly be a slower update cadence than that offered to consumers.

"[CBB] gives IT departments time to start validating updates in their environments the day changes are shipped broadly to consumers," said Alkove, who implied that Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), Microsoft's business-grade update service, would be required to implement CBB.

Michael Silver of Gartner was confident that the interval between CBBs would be 120 days, a span he's stuck to since last fall. Every four months, Microsoft will issue a new CBB that will have rolled up all the non-security changes shipped to consumers during that period.

"A CBB release will include updates from the last 120 days or so," Silver said in an email reply to questions. "Will that need to be deployed within 30 days of its release to get the next month's security fixes Perhaps that's the catch, or one of them."

Another possibility is that once a CBB has been released -- a "stake in the ground," so to speak -- business customers will have until the next CBB to deploy the first, giving them four months of grace. That would mimic how Microsoft ended up treating Windows 8.1 Update.

Silver wasn't sure Microsoft would want to deal with the additional cost and complexity of monitoring not one, but two successive CBBs, and so he leaned toward the 30-day patch-or-perish window. "I think the idea is that organizations will have had four months to test the updates, so once a CBB is released, organizations will probably need to be ready to deploy it before the next month's security fixes are released in order to stay secure," he said.

Nor has Microsoft revealed the cost, if any, of CBB -- one of the biggest questions Silver had. On one hand, Microsoft may levy a fee or require Software Assurance (SA), the annuity-like contracts that until now have been pitched as a way for businesses to upgrade to newer editions of Windows, to implement CBB. Or it may choose not to.

What's the SKU strategy

Part of the confusion over whether CBB will come with a price tag is due to which versions of Windows Microsoft will allow to use that branch. It has yet to define the SKUs (stock-keeping units) for Windows 10, not unusual since it typically does that much closer to the final ship date, say, this summer for a fall debut.

Windows 8.1 has three SKUs: Windows 8.1 for consumers, Windows 8.1 Pro for both businesses and advanced consumers, and Windows 8.1 Enterprise, aimed at large companies and until recently available only via volume licensing and limited to customers with SA.

"There are two issues at hand, upgrade cadence and SKU strategy, and so far, Microsoft is keeping those separate," said Silver. "It sounds like there will be an Enterprise-like SKU that will allow the LTS (long-term servicing branch), CBB, or the consumer update cadence. They didn't say what a Professional-like SKU will have. I doubt devices running Pro will get LTS. Organizations running Pro at least need to be able to run CBB, but Microsoft hasn't made it clear if the right to run CBB will be included."

Gillen of IDC also was puzzled. "Microsoft has not used the term 'Windows 10 Professional' around me, so I am not certain what becomes of the Pro SKU," Gillen said. "Remember that historically you needed 'Windows Professional' if you wanted to join a domain. So I have to assume there will still be some sort of a professional-grade product that lives between Windows 10 for consumers and Windows 10 Enterprise."

That's likely, added Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "Pro users are always a mix of business and higher-end [consumer] needs," said Miller in an interview, implying that Microsoft will continue to offer such a SKU.

Long-term service

The other track Alkove outlined -- Long-term servicing branch, or LTS -- was also named Friday.

"On [LTS], customer devices will receive the level of enterprise support expected for the mission-critical systems, keeping systems more secure with the latest security and critical updates, while minimizing change by not delivering new features for the duration of mainstream (five years) and extended support (five years)," Alkove wrote.

LTS will resemble the traditional way that Microsoft has dealt with OSes, releasing a new version then supporting it for a decade with security updates and bug fixes, but rarely changing the operating system's look, operation or feature set.

Enterprises will be able to assign LTS to specific systems -- those that are most important to its business in many cases -- and essentially "lock" them in place. Only security updates and critical bug fixes would reach them.

But business at Microsoft, and Windows for businesses, won't be what they once were: LTS reflects that. Microsoft will support Windows 10 in the LTS branch -- the first will launch alongside the new OS this fall -- for 10 years. But it will occasionally -- Alkove used the vague phrase "at appropriate time intervals" -- generate a new LTS which, Alkove said, "incorporate new functionality."

Enterprises that adopt LTS will be able to move to the newest branch on their own timeline, and may, said Alkove, "be able to skip one." It was unclear whether the latter meant companies may be forced to adopt a newer LTS at some point.

Analysts compared LTS and its multiple branches to traditional Windows.

"My understanding is that there will be certain 'branches' that will be similar in concept to the release versions of products we've had in the past," said Gillen. "Call them Windows 10 Release A, Release B, Release C, etc. It could be that Release B will be supported for a 10-year lifecycle. That means that release D, E, and F may all be 'short term' support products. Enterprises would likely land critical deployments on Release B, and sit on it for several years."

"I'd liken [a new LTS] to a major release of the OS, or something like Windows 8.1, a new brand," said Miller of Directions.

"You don't need to be static for 10 years," added Silver. "Organizations will be able to take advantage of new features every few years by deploying a new LTS. That way they can get the benefits without getting functional improvements in dribs and drabs, having to test each update."

Money, money, money

Microsoft has said nothing definitive about what the branches or tracks will cost. But the experts were certain that LTS would come with a price tag. Again last week, Alkove implied a link between Software Assurance (SA) and the update options for businesses, using the phrase "full flexibility to deploy Windows 10" in describing SA.

There was little doubt among analysts that LTS won't be free to all comers. "It sure would seem [that LTS] will be connected to Software Assurance," said Miller, reading between the lines.

Silver, on the other hand, left no wiggle room. "LTS is going to be a major value proposition to sell SA," he said.

The closer-to-consumer tempo of CBB could also be a revenue generator for Microsoft, said Silver, who assumed that Windows 10 Enterprise users will have access to the track. PCs running Windows 10 Pro, too Maybe.

"I think [CBB rights will be included with Pro], but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some fee or limitation to how it can be done," Silver said. "With Microsoft no longer receiving revenue from Windows upgrades and receiving less money from OEMs, it will be redoubling its efforts to show the value of SA and encourage organizations to buy it."

Miller echoed Silver on Microsoft's need to make up for Windows revenue declines on the consumer and consumer OEM sides. "It will be up for the enterprise to pick up the slack," he said.

"Requiring SA for CBB would be pretty heavy-handed [and] another, perhaps less expensive, program would add complexity to licensing," Silver added. "There will be some catch, but it's not clear what it will be. It won't be a free lunch."

How soon do enterprises need to know

Microsoft's practice of disclosing details pertinent to enterprises in dribs and drabs isn't unusual for either the company or other big software developers: The tactic keeps its intentions in the news.

But it may be counter-productive for customers, Silver argued. "Organizations need these answers soon because if there will be fees, they need to budget for them," he said.

However, that presupposes enterprises will quickly adopt Windows 10, not a slam dunk. Although Microsoft's Alkove said last week that the free Windows 10 upgrade will be offered to Windows 7 Professional and Windows 8.1 Pro users -- albeit he again did not describe which SKU of Windows 10 will be offered them -- businesses may wait until Windows 7's retirement deadline of January 2020 nears before migrating significant numbers of personal computers to the new OS.

"Since few organizations would probably be doing a lot with Windows 10 in 2015, they probably have until 2016 budgeting to figure it out," Silver said, taking both sides.


Gregg Keizer

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