Tablet licensing rules with Microsoft Office

As tablets make their way into the enterprise, it might be time to brush up on licensing rules for mobilizing Microsoft Office. We also provide some solutions for reducing costs.

As consumer-oriented tablets move into the enterprise, they pose new Microsoft licensing challenges. Apple and Android operating systems dominate the tablet market, so relatively few devices run Windows and Microsoft Office. But if users of most tablets want to work with Office documents, they need to access Windows desktops and Office remotely over the network or find Office alternatives.

Ideally, tablet users would be able to easily open, edit and save an Office document from any device -- mobile or desktop -- with the document always centrally managed, backed up and available for sharing with collaborators. It's a tall order, but given its importance to an increasingly mobile workforce, someone will get it right someday.

Unfortunately, even Microsoft isn't there yet. Technical limitations and sometimes arbitrary licensing rules mean that access to the full Office suite can cost customers $1,000 or more per tablet. Organizations that don't have a handle on how their staffers are using tablets should be especially careful; employees unaware of the fine points of Microsoft licensing could create major compliance liabilities.

Compliance risk

It's easy for users to remotely access Office with tablets. But are they doing so legally? In many cases, no.

The Microsoft licensing rules that are most relevant to Office on tablets include the following:

  1. Remote use of Office is licensed on the computer that is accessing the remote instance (such as a tablet), not on the device that is hosting it.
  2. A Windows server running Office on Windows Terminal Services -- now Remote Desktop Services (RDS) -- requires a tablet to have Client Access Licenses (CALs) for both RDS and Windows Server.
  3. A desktop virtual machine (VM) running Windows and Office requires any device with an embedded operating system (including a Microsoft embedded OS) to have an Office license and a Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) subscription for access.
  4. Accessing email on a remote Exchange server or documents on a SharePoint server or a Windows file share requires a CAL for each type of server accessed.
  5. A tablet needs a full Office 2010 license for Office Web Apps (OWA); for browser-based versions of Word, Excel and other Office applications; or to run on a corporate SharePoint server.
  6. Both Office and Windows licenses permit the "primary user" of a desktop PC to access that PC and use Windows and Office on it from any other device.

The Microsoft licenses needed to use a tablet with Office in a work environment will probably cost more than the tablet itself. For full flexibility, for example, an iPad user will need Microsoft licenses that cost up to $1,000 (plus ongoing subscriptions, worth about $200 per year) to access VMs and remote desktop sessions running Office applications. Volume discounts may bring the price down by about 30%.

These include a full license for Office 2010 Professional Plus -- or Mac for Office 2011 -- a VDA subscription, an RDS license, and a Core CAL Suite license and subscription.

To be fair, a regular Windows portable device requires most of the same licenses to remotely access Office. The important lesson for IT and corporate management, however, is that if your users purchase iPads and don't tell you about it, or if you don't have policies covering access to corporate software from personal devices, you could face some huge software bills down the road.

Microsoft solutions

A couple of Microsoft licensing options could reduce costs. These include the portable device right for Office and Office 365 subscriptions.

The portable device right says that if a user has a desktop PC licensed for Office Professional Plus or Standard or other desktop software, such as Visio or Project, he can install another copy of the product on a portable device. While this isn't a complete solution, it does take the big ticket item off the shopping list for many people who have already purchased Office once.

Office 365, which offers Web-based document storage and editing, as well as a subscription for Office Professional Plus, falls quite short of the ideal.

OWA is a view-only solution on most mobile devices with embedded OSes. That may change in the future, but for now it seriously limits the utility of Office 365 for tablet users.

The Office 365 Subscription to Office Professional Plus seems at first glance to be the perfect solution, providing a user subscription for up to five devices, both corporate and personal. Unfortunately, the subscription cannot be applied to Apple and Android tablets or even many lightweight Windows-based tablets because it requires Office Professional Plus 2010 to be installed and running on the device.

Non-Microsoft solutions

Since Microsoft can't do it all, what about non-Microsoft products? Many offer more utility and lower or no exposure to Microsoft licensing costs. No single vendor, however, has yet delivered the kind of seamless utility and file synchronization that mobile users lust after.

Here are some partial solutions:

  • Tablet-based editors, such as Documents to Go, Quickoffice and Apple's iWork, let tablet users view and sometimes edit Office documents. They may also work with services such as Dropbox or Box.net to synchronize files with desktop PCs. They're far cheaper than licensing Office for the tablet.
  • Web-based file storage and browser-based editors from Google, Zimbra, Zoho and others can do lightweight editing and sometimes offer file synchronization between the cloud and desktop PCs. They also enable collaboration with other users and are cheap or free.
  • Remote-control software, such as GoToMyPC, LogMeIn or TeamViewer, connects a remote device to the user's PC. These systems leap over a bunch of Microsoft licensing barriers by taking advantage of rule six above, which says the "primary user" can access Office and Windows from any other device -- like a tablet with an embedded OS. Client Access License requirements may also disappear, since the CALs many users need have already been assigned to the users or their work PCs.
  • Linux-based virtualization sidesteps Microsoft licensing and costs by employing an open-source virtual desktop infrastructure. Components include remote-access products such as VNC, Linux desktops (physical or virtual) and OpenOffice, which does a decent job of creating, opening and editing Office documents.

Microsoft's strategy

Why doesn't Microsoft make this easier?

The strategy here may be a time-honored one: Make the rules restrictive for all tablets until Microsoft releases a product (such as Windows 8) that can compete with Android and Apple. Since Microsoft isn't a significant tablet player today, restrictive rules don't hurt it.

But this strategy has some serious drawbacks.

First, it depends on a product that hasn't been released and on Microsoft subsequently overwhelming the competition in a market that competitors completely dominate today.

Second, it buttresses the appeal of cloud-based offerings that may offer in a few years all the practical functionality and Office compatibility that users want. Microsoft can't afford the rise of a cheap or free Web product capable of replacing its $18 billion-per-year Office business.

In the interim, Microsoft would be well advised to come up with ways to let today's tablet users enjoy today's Office functionality with as few pricing and licensing barriers as possible.

Cynthia Farren assisted in the development of this article.

Paul DeGroot
is a writer, trainer and principal consultant at Pica Communications, which specializes in Microsoft licensing strategies and policies.

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