Windows Insider

Windows Enterprise Subscriptions Give Small Businesses Headaches

The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update will be packed with the kind of security features that could really help small businesses, but they'll have to become enterprise customers.

Windows Defender Exploit Guard, the successor to the venerable Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit, introduces protection against attacks that are too new for anti-virus software to recognize. Windows Defender Application Guard creates a highly sandboxed Web-browsing environment. Major updates to Windows Defender Device Guard buttress the already impressive "defense in depth" capabilities of Windows 10, and Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (WDATP) offers the capability to detect and remediate attacks that get through those formidable defenses.

That all sounds great, except for one problem: Those new features aren't available to devices running Windows 10 Pro. Instead, they're reserved for Microsoft's enterprise customers.

Historically, upgrades to the Enterprise edition have been almost exclusively the province of large businesses, requiring volume license agreements that priced them out of the reach of smaller businesses.

That's changed with Windows 10, which now offers subscription editions of Windows 10 Enterprise that can be purchased one license at a time. The Windows 10 Enterprise E3 plan costs $7 per user per month (with an annual agreement) and allows installation on up to five devices. The Windows 10 Enterprise E5 plan includes the same capabilities and adds support for WDATP, for a cost of $14 per user per month.

Those subscription plans sound ideal for small businesses and sole proprietors. Until you visit Microsoft's Windows for Business page and discover that the new products are only available through the Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program.

The requirement to work through a third-party partner turns what should be a simple transaction into one that's anything but friction-free, as I found when I tried to buy a single Windows 10 Enterprise E3 subscription from one of the world's largest Microsoft resellers. My order went through without any apparent problem, and I received a confirmation e-mail minutes later. And then … nothing.

One week later, my subscription is still in limbo, with various support people scratching their heads and promising to look into it further.

This isn't an isolated experience, either. A colleague who works with small business clients purchased a Windows 10 Enterprise E5 subscription from the same supplier, with the same result.

Based on my experience and a perusal of documentation in the Microsoft Partner Center, this isn't a bug, it's a feature. Microsoft's insistence on handing off sales and support to its partners adds steps to the provisioning and onboarding process, most of which can't be easily automated. And while the CSP program makes it possible for a business to work with multiple Microsoft cloud partners (one for Office 365 and another for Azure, for example), there's no easy way to migrate or transition subscriptions from one partner to another.

What's especially odd about this arrangement is that Microsoft does sell Office 365 and Azure subscriptions directly to customers, without requiring a partner's intervention. But in an apparent bid to placate its longtime Windows partners, Microsoft doesn't offer direct sales of these new Windows Enterprise subscriptions.

And this isn't just a problem with setting up the initial relationship, either. Once you purchase a subscription and have that user provisioned for your organizational account, you can manage it directly from the same dashboard you use. But if you need to purchase additional subscriptions as your business grows and you hire new employees, you'll have to contact your partner and wait for them to do the provisioning.

For small businesses that are used to instant gratification from competing cloud services, this entire experience is likely to feel needlessly complicated.

One of Microsoft's avowed goals in introducing the Windows 10 Enterprise E3 and E5 plans was to increase the penetration of enterprise security features into the small business space, where it's practically nonexistent. Until the company abandons this "partner first" philosophy and begins engaging directly with customers, that number is unlikely to increase significantly

About the Author

Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."

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