Windows Intune: Microsoft Gathers MSP Feedback

Windows Intune: Microsoft Gathers MSP Feedback

Microsoft continues to beta test Windows Intune, a SaaS-based platform for remotely managing Windows desktops and servers. I suspect Windows Intune won't be generally available until mid-2011 or so. But in the meantime here's a refreshing twist: Microsoft is out in the market, meeting privately with analysts, coaches and MSPs -- soliciting ideas and feedback on how to shape Windows Intune for MSPs. The big question: Will Microsoft listen to the constructive criticism?

Let's start with the positive: During last week's ConnectWise IT Nation conference I spoke with multiple MSPs who are familiar with the the Windows Intune beta process. Generally speaking, those MSPs see Windows Intune as a potential game changer. If the platform works as advertised it could help MSPs to break down more market barriers. Specifically, a Microsoft-branded, Microsoft-endorsed remote monitoring and management platform could help skeptical SMB customers to finally embrace the managed services model, SaaS and beyond.

So far, so good. Many of those MSPs at ConnectWise IT Nation say Microsoft is doing a good job soliciting feedback from MVPs, Small Business Server (SBS) experts, and regional MSPs. There's also talk of Microsoft forming and/or expanding a Windows Intune advisory group within the channel. But here are the three key challenges facing Windows Intune, in my humble opinion:

1. Billing Model: Generally speaking, Microsoft's cloud strategy involves direct billing to end-customers. This has made some MSPs wary of Business Productivity Online Suite (such as Exchange Online and SharePoint Online) and the forthcoming BPOS successor, Office 365. Windows Intune will also have a direct billing model to end customers. During the recent ConnectWise IT Nation conference in Orlando, some -- but certainly not all -- MSPs said they will refuse to support SaaS applications if the MSP can't manage customer billing.

2. Cross-Platform Support: Generally Speaking, Windows Intune is a Windows-centric remote management tool. If you want to remotely manage Mac OS X and Linux environments you're out of luck. To me, that sounds like Microsoft is slightly out of touch with today's small business environments, where MacBooks, iMacs, iPads and Android devices seem to be gaining broader user adoption. Sure, Windows still dominates the SMB landscape but can Microsoft really afford to ignore those other platform niches? My long-term bet: No.

3. Price: At $11 per month per system, I think most MSPs are still sorting out how Windows Intune will potentially fit in their overall managed services portfolio. On the one hand, traditional remote monitoring and management (RMM) tools can cost far more. But on the other hand it's unclear if Windows Intune could really be a full replacement for entrenched RMM offerings. To sweeten the offer, Microsoft has introduced a Windows 7 upgrade offer tied to Windows Intune.

Keep An Open Mind

Despite those potential hurdles I suspect there will be a very strong market for Windows Intune, assuming the SaaS platform works as advertised when it debuts sometime in 2011. No doubt, many resellers and MSPs don't want to get caught up in the billing discussion. They'd prefer that a third party -- in this  case, Microsoft -- handle the customer billing directly. Also, a large number of MSPs remain Windows-centric in their business practices, so cross-platform support isn't a big issue.

Still, if Microsoft wants Windows Intune to be a runaway success... and if Microsoft is really taking MSP feedback to heart... the company will need to listen closely to the market's most influential MSPs. And I suspect those MSPs are telling Microsoft to adjust its billing model while broadening Windows Intune's platform support. For now, the pricing discussion can wait. Solve the cross-platform issue and Windows Intune potentially becomes that much more valuable...

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