The twists and turns of Office Web Apps' software license

Microsoft's Office 2010 Web Apps license should raise eyebrows and give IT managers headaches -- but what else is new?

As if managing software license compliance wasn't already complicated enough. The situation is likely to only worsen as software vendors experiment with new distribution and delivery models, including cloud computing. Case in point, the hybrid cloud/on-premise license for Microsoft's forthcoming Office Web Apps.

Enterprises typically license desktop software on a per-computer or per-head basis. Either way, the bottom line is clear: Each installed copy of the software must have a valid license (and many packages verify their own compliance over the network). License terms for server-based software can be more complex, but managing compliance is fairly easy, as only properly licensed users are able to login to access the software.

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Problems arise when software vendors experiment with hybrid models that combine aspects of cloud computing and traditional desktop software. Microsoft will be wading into these waters with the release of Office 2010 later this year, and the resulting licensing quirks are worth noting for IT managers and software developers alike.

Where the client meets the cloud
Among the most anticipated features of Office 2010 are the Office Web Apps, Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote that allow viewing and editing of Office documents from any standards-compliant browser. Microsoft will offer gratis ad-supported versions of the Web Apps for the general public, but enterprise customers that purchase volume licenses for Office 2010 will have the option of hosting ad-free versions of the Web Apps on their own servers.

Licensing the Web Apps can get complicated. The general idea is that if a company buys a 100-seat volume license of Office, each of those 100 users has a license to install and use the desktop Office applications, plus a license to use the equivalent Web Apps hosted on the company's servers. But from where can users access the Web Apps? And from which computers? According to Microsoft's Product Usage Rights document, dated January 2010:

Primary User. The single primary user of the licensed device may access and use the software remotely from any device.

In this context, "the licensed device" means the individual user's primary work computer -- essentially, the computer onto which you'd install the user's copy of the desktop Office applications. What the license terms are saying, however, is that even though your license to use the Web Apps is tied to a specific computer, if you're the single primary user of that computer, you're free to use the Web Apps from any device you want. You can use them from your work computer, your home computer, a friend's computer, or a public terminal at a hotel. You can even access the mobile versions of the Web Apps from your smartphone. I think we can all agree this is great news, since any other licensing model would pretty much negate the value of hosting a Web-based office suite in the first place.

But what are we to make of the next line of Microsoft's document?

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