by Paul DeGroot
Some people have been celebrating the fact that Windows 10 springs no major licensing “gotchas” on customers. I beg to differ.
Software Licensing Advisors believes there is a huge “gotcha” and it will cost many business customers dearly—not only in payments to Microsoft but in potential legal exposure and operational costs.
Taking Control of Windows
Here’s the gotcha, in a preliminary copy of the licensing rules, obtained by Ed Bott of ZDNet.
“Automatic updates…. The software periodically checks for system and app updates, and downloads and installs them for you…. By accepting this agreement, you agree to receive these types of automatic updates without any additional notice.”
This language describes a new element in Windows licensing, the “service branch,” that makes major changes to Microsoft’s existing Product Lifecycle Policy.
Today’s Update Options
Today (pre-Windows 10), customers control whether or note updates are deployed, and which are updates are applied. They can 1) automatically install all updates; 2) they can download updates, but not install them until they are tested and approved; or 3) they can get no updates unless they ran Windows Update and downloaded them selectively.
The most common practice in enterprises is to turn off automatic updating of any kind and to set up an internal Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) server that downloads updates. Technical staff review and test all updates, then roll them out, or not. They don’t want automatic updates because the average enterprise has thousands of applications, many very specialized or custom built, that they depend on. A bad patch or even a simple update can break other systems operations and spoil the party.
Some enterprises need complete control over every element of the Windows OS, because their PCs are connected to special equipment or software that must be certified as providing performance, stability, and features that a manufacturer or a regulatory agency like the Food and Drug Administration will support. They might be regulated by HIPAA or PCI compliance and their desktop image OS plays a part in that.
The smallest change—just a different date on a DLL, for example–can break the application or require a $100,000-plus re-certification exercise.
The important point here is that whether or not an organization gets service updates and patches does not depend on whether they pay Microsoft extra money.
Volume licensing customers may purchase Software Assurance (SA), which offers rights to new versions or Upgrades to higher editions (Windows 7 Enterprise) of the software, but has no impact on the update services received…
Turning SA on Its Head
Today, customers pay Microsoft extra for SA because they want to get new Windows versions, such as Windows 10, which incorporate new technologies, updated development tools, and so on.
Since Microsoft is giving many customers free updates to Windows 10, however, the company has blown a hole in the primary reason to buy SA.
To patch that hole, Microsoft is making a 180. In the future, customers will have to purchase SA to NOT get updates.
Got that? If you pay Microsoft extra, they agree to give you less, or at least, you get the choice not to take the updates that might break your systems.
Future Service Branches
Your Windows 10 updates will be channeled through one of three service branch options.
The Windows 10 default, for all versions of Windows, is the mandatory Current Branch. It’s like the “Install updates automatically” option. Other choices, such as “Download updates but let me choose whether to install them,” will no longer exist.
If you don’t want to give Microsoft total control of your desktop updates, you can purchase SA, which has never been required for update services in the past. It costs 29% per year of the cost of a Windows license, which in practice amounts to purchasing a new Windows license every three years.
The first option with SA is the Current Branch for Business, available for three editions of Windows (Professional, Education, and Enterprise). It lets customers determine which updates they want to apply but all updates must be deployed eventually. It allows some delay so that testing can be done in advance, but updates still must be done.
Customers who want to maintain complete control over updates must add SA, install Windows 10 Enterprise, and get the Long Term Service Branch, which lets them deploy updates on any schedule they choose, selectively apply updates, or not apply them at all.
Legal Impacts…The new policy raises significant legal questions.
Who is liable for a losses caused by a Microsoft update that was downloaded and installed without notification on the customer’s entire PC populations?
How about a software-controlled manufacturing or medical device that goes awry? If the company that built the device passes along the Microsoft software and those costs in their solution, then they transfer that right to you, but no longer control it and they cannot transfer their SA—with Windows Enterprise and the Long Term Service Branch—to the end customer. That could leave the device unprotected and the end user ignorant of changes that affect it. In the event of a bad or incompatible patch, the device might fail to operate, triggering a costly support exercise by the manufacturer who might, in the end, be unable to reverse Microsoft’s changes. At worst, the change could kill someone in the healthcare field. The only “actor” in this scenario is Microsoft, who proactively installed, without notification to the manufacturer or end user, a change that affected the device’s operation.
All fingers will point at Redmond.
Customers would do well to demand contract amendments that make Microsoft solely responsible for the consequences of any unilateral, undisclosed Microsoft updates or changes that affect the software the customer uses. If customers don’t get such assurances they will need to seriously consider the wisdom of upgrading to Windows 10. It’s not worth betting your company on and you shouldn’t have to pay Microsoft loads of extra SA dollars to have a say in which updates you deploy.
Microsoft’s promises to support Windows 10 through 2025 could shape the future of the PC industry.
This is a bold, but more likely foolhardy public promise that puts an additional burden on the already-declining PC business. In theory, any machine purchased and deployed after August 1, 2015, should still be in acceptable working form in 2025. The equivalent today would be running Windows 10 on a Vista PC. At what point would the customer decide to replace a computer that Microsoft promises will be in working order, with the latest updates, until 2025?
The Windows application ecosystem may also be affected. The Windows 10 automatic update language covers not just Windows 10, but apps too, like the Word, Excel, and OneNote apps, that Microsoft ships with it.
This raises a ghost from Microsoft’s past, the antitrust action of the late ’90s spawned by Microsoft’s desire to own the Internet. To ensure that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser could dominate and thus dictate Web standards, Microsoft penalized OEMs—in some cases threatened to stop providing Windows itself to them—if they insisted on putting a competitive Web browser on new PCs. This gave it a huge advantage over the competition. Customers who purchased a new PC could either a) click on IE to browse the Web or b) locate the Netscape Web site, download Netscape browser software to their PC, and execute the installation, skills that most consumers lacked at the time.
The tactic earned Microsoft not only ownership of the desktop OS and browser markets, but a long date with the antitrust department of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
The new language takes us back to that day, and arguably, to even greater market power. Microsoft will not only ship new apps automatically, without requiring customers to take a trip to the Microsoft Store, but could also make changes—if only unintentionally—that cripple competing apps on Windows 10.
You can rest assured that any app vendor whose product is negatively affected by a forced Windows 10 update will be calling the DOJ. And, customer legal teams will be reviewing Microsoft’s liability when they force-ably update Windows 10 and break their networks in harmful ways.
I would be surprised if this policy survives in its current form. The change could have a major impact on enterprises, may create a higher legal threshold for use of Windows 10, and could leave many customers with monumental operational headaches as they try to cope with compatibility conflicts that appear out of nowhere.
The new policy sounds way too much like a protection racket: “Gee, nice little company you got here. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to it, like a secret software update that takes down your security system. Pay us extra every year, and we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”