There was quite a bit of news out of Microsoft’s Ignite conference in Orlando this week, but its announcement of Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) was one of the most monumental to my mind. WVD represents not just a strong product offering in an increasingly competitive space, but it also reflects the much smarter, more evolved view of Windows that Microsoft has embraced under current CEO Satya Nadella.
Virtual Desktop Basics
Virtual desktops aren’t new, and Microsoft’s partners–and competitors–have been offering access to Windows in this manner for years. In short: A virtual desktop is one that runs on a server or in the cloud, accessed via a client app or browser on a client endpoint. In the past, these endpoints tended to be low-cost thin client hardware, which companies used to replace more costly PCs. Today, pretty much any device with a browser can act as a virtual desktop endpoint, from phones and tablets to non-Windows PCs running Google’s Chrome and Apple’s MacOS.
Virtual desktops are one of those technologies that has always looked great on paper, but often disappointed in practice due to their high reliance on a stable, fast network connection. As network speeds and quality of service has improved over time, and as LTE has become more prevalent, virtual desktops have become increasingly viable. And the pending rollout of 5G should drive even better performance over mobile networks. Over the years, Microsoft partners have rolled out increasingly capable Windows-based offerings, and so have direct Microsoft cloud competitors. Microsoft executives were quick to note at Ignite that existing partners will be able to leverage (and sell) WVD and that its goal with this announcement was to offer a differentiated product that better positions it against competitors such as Amazon and Google.
WVD’s Special Sauce
Microsoft has put together a compelling package with WVD, which will launch as a preview later this year. One of the most notable features is the ease with which current customers can spin up virtual machines and the flexibility around licensing and cost. Existing customers with Microsoft 365 Enterprise and Education E3 and E5 subscriptions can access WVD at no extra charge, paying Microsoft for the Azure storage and compute utilized by the virtual desktops.
Microsoft says WVD is the only licensed provider of multi-user virtual desktops. Multi-user means that a company can provision a high-performance virtual desktop and then assign more than one user to that desktop, leveraging the performance and storage across more than one employee. Microsoft also says that WVD users will access Office 365 Pro Plus optimizations, for a smoother virtualized Office experience.
Finally, Microsoft announced that WVD users will have the ability to run Windows 7 desktops well beyond the January 2020 End-of-Life date. This will allow companies that are behind in their Windows 10 transition, or who are struggling to move propriety apps to the new OS, more time to make the move. For many, this feature alone may represent a strong reason to try WVD.
An Evolved View of Windows
Microsoft’s WVD looks to be a compelling product, and I look forward to testing it out when it becomes available. But beyond the announcement itself, I’m most impressed by what it signifies about the company’s evolution in thinking around Windows. Microsoft under Bill Gates or Steve Balmer could have offered a version of WVD, but it never did. And if it had, you can be sure the company would have charged a licensing fee for every single virtual desktop it served up.
Under Nadella, the company has moved away from Windows as the product that it must sell, and protect, at all costs. Today, it’s willing to offer an easy-to-deploy virtual desktop to existing licensees to drive more customers toward Azure and its Microsoft and Office 365 offerings. Perhaps just as important is the underlying (and unspoken) acknowledgment that the installed base of traditional endpoint devices running Windows natively has likely peaked, while the number of primarily mobile devices running other OSes will continue to grow. By offering a best-in-breed experience that lets companies and employees run a Windows desktop on these devices when needed using nothing more than a browser, Microsoft helps ensure that Windows remains an important business platform well into the future.