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Microsoft launches new PC tool for small businesses

The software giant debuts Intune, a Web-based service meant to help businesses manage their stable of Windows PCs.

Microsoft wants to convince small and midsize businesses that they need the same sort of PC-management tools that large corporations use. So today, the software giant is rolling out Intune, a Web-based service that gives companies the ability to update and patch programs, as well as track antivirus software on their PCs. "It's using the cloud to make Windows more secure," says Microsoft Group Product Manager Alex Heaton.

Microsoft, which said last July that it would charge $11 a month per PC for Intune, launched the service today at the Microsoft Management Summit in Las Vegas. Intune requires a one-year commitment and will be available in 35 countries. The subscription includes the right to upgrade PCs to the enterprise edition of Windows 7. Microsoft will limit Intune to 20,000 PCs per company, and will also offer volume discounts to large customers.

But Intune is really aimed at much smaller companies, those that generally have little tech support and infrastructure. "This is more of a small to medium business play," says Al Gillen, an IDC analyst who conducted research for Microsoft on the Intune market. "Those are generally the people that don't have PC management."

Microsoft's challenge is convincing those companies of Intune's value. Plenty of small to midsize companies don't have much budget earmarked for PC management. Gillen found that companies that do have on-site tech support can save upwards of $700 a year per PC. That savings comes primarily from labor reduction. For companies that don't have tech staff, the savings is less obvious, even if Intune does provide productivity gains. As a result, Gillen expects Intune's sales to grow gradually. "It won't hockey stick in the first six to 12 months," Gillen says. "It will take longer than that."

There clearly is some interest, though. When Microsoft launched a beta of Intune last April, it hit its limit of 1,000 users within 24 hours, according to Microsoft's Heaton. And a second beta test in July for 10,000 users filled by September.

While Intune comes with Windows 7 upgrade rights, it can manage Windows XP and Windows Vista PCs as well. Companies can't use it, though, to manage PCs running earlier versions of Windows or Macs.

In addition to managing and deploying software updates and keeping tabs on malware activity, Intune lets companies set up remote assistance for workers away from the main office. It also can offer a complete inventory of hardware and software within a company.

Microsoft has also designed a feature in Intune that's meant to help IT consultants manage PCs for multiple companies. The so-called multi-account console gives those consultants the ability to switch among customers to manage their PCs. Those resellers get 18 percent of Intune subscription revenue in the first year, and 6 percent every year after that. And they can also charge more for advising customers, based on Intune data, about future software deployment.

Intune multi-account console Microsoft