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Microsoft suggests businesses buy fewer PCs. No, really

Redmond wants you using Cloud PCs instead because they offer a better sustainability story

At first flush it's an utterly bizarre argument for Microsoft to endorse, but the PC operating system giant has floated the idea that businesses buy fewer PCs.

Yes, we're talking about that Microsoft – the company that's utterly synonymous with the PC, and which together with Intel set out to have one of the machines in every home and on every office desk in the world.

Microsoft's anti-PC ideology emerged in early April with the start of previews for a product called "Windows Frontline" that sees a single license confer the right to use up to three Cloud PCs.

The "Frontline" name hints at its purpose: Microsoft thinks this license will benefit organizations that employ shift workers in roles like customer support or healthcare. Microsoft imagines shift workers will log on for eight hours, then the next worker on duty will do likewise, and advances this as a fairer way to charge than assuming cloud PCs are used 24x7.

To burnish that argument, Microsoft's launch material for Windows Frontline included research [PDF] by tech sustainability consultancy Px3 that tries to answer the question "Can modern work applications and endpoints abate end user computing greenhouse gas emissions and drive climate action?"

The answer is "Yes", when one considers cloudy PCs to be "modern endpoints."

The research reaches that conclusion with analysis of the energy consumption of desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and thin clients, compared to the impact of running a Cloud PC. The research also considers bring your own PC plans that see business fund the acquisition of PCs that their staff use for personal and employment purposes, meaning fewer devices need to be summoned into existence and fewer resources are consumed because users operate one machine instead of two.

Px3 instead imagines that end users and their sole device to access a Windows365 Cloud PC when they're on the clock. Doing so would mean corporate PC replacement cycles could stretch to eight years!

Readers will not be surprised that the research found the combination of Windows365 and a bring your own PC plan has significantly lower environmental impact and is therefore a jolly good idea.

The research's concluding paragraph states "it is reasonable to state that modern work applications and endpoint computers not only abate GHG emissions, they are perhaps critical to securing a sustainable future."

That's perhaps a little overblown but the point is made: slowing consumption is a good idea and it's now possible to turn down the speed of the PC upgrade treadmill.

But this approach is poison to some of Microsoft's oldest and dearest partners: the likes of Intel, AMD, Dell, HP, and Lenovo all rely on strong PC sales. Each year they all roll out the same argument: this year's CPUs and the PCs they power make you vastly more productive, so hurry up and buy one.

Microsoft is able to virtuously argue against that because it promises cloud PCs will always deliver appropriate performance regardless of the underlying hardware.

It helps that Cloud PCs effectively mean Microsoft gets paid for Windows monthly, instead of the one-off charge from licensing the OS. And across the eight year lifespan of a PC that accesses Cloud PCs, Microsoft nets $9,848 and is still making money in years six, seven, and eight, while a PC maker doesn't get a payday.

For what it's worth, other cloud-desktop-as-a-service players already offer hourly billing. And plenty of other workers don't use their physical PCs all day, and aren't awake to use them for a few hours, but Microsoft's never cut them a deal.

Microsoft's concerns for sustainability may not therefore extend to the bottom lines of its partners or customers. ®

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