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Handicapping Windows Intune as an MSP Tool

Microsoft got a lot more specific today on the future of Windows Intune. A product that had been promised only for 2011 now has an exact availability date, and it's soon: March 23. Read the news story here.

For those not lucky enough to get into the 10,000-member Beta 2 club, Windows Intune is a cloud-based systems management and security tool that is designed for both midsize company IT administrators and for managed service providers. A Multi-Account Console added at the Beta 2 phase in July made the tool much more of an MSP play, rather than just an IT admin tool.

Will this tool work for MSPs as a way to manage their customers? What I think, based in part on conversations with MSPs, is Intune's got three big things against it and three big things going for it.

The Bad:

  1. Microsoft wants to use the same direct-billing method with Windows Intune that it uses for the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite. The customer gets a bill from Microsoft and the Partner of Record gets a quarterly check from Microsoft for 18 percent the first year, and 6 percent in subsequent years.  In many ways, direct-billing is more of a non-starter for MSPs than for potential BPOS resellers, who are plenty hot about it. MSPs are in the business of bundling their services into a monthly rate and billing their customers. Dealing with a discrete bill for a core part of the service? Not an option, I'm hearing.

  2. MSPs have a lot of mature third-party systems management tools for remote monitoring and management of customer systems. Microsoft really has to come in with an offering that's head and shoulders above the competition to be seriously considered.

  3. Is this a tool for end users or for partners? Microsoft's answer is both, which may make sense in Redmond but isn't a great situation for partners. It means in some cases Microsoft would be trying to sell Windows Intune as a tool to the same customers to whom MSPs would be pitching their managed services packages that include Windows Intune. (In most cases, however, Microsoft's direct sales would probably target larger organizations than many MSPs will chase.) The bigger problem is the mixed message from a product development standpoint. Is this product designed for partners or end users? That tension could hamper product development.

The Good:

  1. What's really appealing about Windows Intune is that no one can manage Windows systems better than Microsoft, and Microsoft is starting to make that management possible from the cloud in addition to the old way of using the System Center family of servers on premises.

  2. Microsoft tried to do an MSP-style, on-premise System Center solution in the past and gave it up. But the cloud lends itself to the MSP model so much more easily that there will be less incentive for Microsoft to throw in the towel if it doesn't catch on right away.

  3. From a licensing standpoint, Windows Intune gives partners a way to slip enterprise licensing benefits to SMB customers who wouldn't think of entering the type of licensing agreement that would bring them Software Assurance benefits. A partner that could hand over Windows 7 Enterprise upgrade rights along with Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack benefits might be very popular indeed with their customers.

What's interesting to me about the bad here is that none of the objections are insurmountable. Microsoft officials have hinted that they're working on an alternative to the direct-billing approach, and it would make sense for that change to come sometime after Office 365 (the successor to BPOS) ships this summer. If Microsoft resolves those thorny issues for Office 365/BPOS, changing it for Windows Intune would be a relatively simple port.

If Microsoft removes that billing objection, getting partners to consider a Microsoft-based alternative to existing RMM tools isn't insurmountable, either. I hope Microsoft gets Windows Intune right. MSPs have been a major part of Microsoft's partner community for years, but they haven't had much attention from Redmond's product groups. A solid systems management tool that provides a viable MSP technology option and spurs further competition (and improvement) among established vendors in the space would be a benefit to Microsoft's MSP partners.

Posted by Scott Bekker on February 28, 2011 at 11:58 AM