Dear Microsoft — we need to talk.
Recently, you pushed out a new preview version of Windows 11 and snuck in a major change that many of us in IT aren’t happy about. You first made this change in Windows 11 Home, where you required users to install the operating system with an Internet connection and set up the system with a Microsoft account. (At the time, many thought requiring a Microsoft account for Home users was a good idea.)
Now, you’ve released Windows 11 Insider Preview Build 22557 that mandates a Microsoft account when installing even Windows 11 Professional. For many, this is not a mandate we feel is appropriate.
First, let’s look at what having a Microsoft account does when you set up your computer. As Microsoft points out, the account gives you an “all-access pass to Microsoft’s premier services. If you use any of these services, you should already have a Microsoft account: Outlook.com, Office, Skype, OneDrive, Xbox Live, Bing, Microsoft Store, Windows, or MSN.” If your machine has Bitlocker enabled, the Bitlocker keys are backed up in Microsoft’s cloud. And users get a OneDrive location to store files and information so they have a backup if they get hit with ransomware.
All these advantages sound wonderful, right? But even home users at times want a local-only computer with no internet access. Or want to set up a virtual machine. Or want a peer-to-peer network without a connection to cloud services. You get the idea. Users want choices. They want privacy. There are many reasons someone might not want a Microsoft account. And for those who argue that an iPhone or an Android phone demands that you use an account to log in, keep in mind that you’re comparing desktop operating systems to phones. Instead, you should compare Windows to Apple’s macOS, where you can still set up a computer without needing an account tied to cloud services.
In addition to the account requirement, Preview Build 22557 also brings the ability to group pinned apps into folders in the Start menu; a Do not disturb feature; and the Focus feature, among other changes. But it’s the account mandate when deploying Windows 11 Professional that has users a tad bit upset. Many set up virtual machines for testing and do not want the hassle of setting up a computer with a Microsoft account. I’ve personally set up so many virtual machines with a Microsoft account that when logging into the Microsoft store to use or test some software, I’ve had to log into the Device listing to remove old virtual machines. While you can have more than 10 machines tied to a Microsoft account, the Microsoft Store still has what feels to be an arbitrary 10-device limit.
As the Microsoft Store notes: “You can use up to 10 devices with Microsoft Store. If you can’t download apps and games, you’ve reached your Microsoft Store device limit. Unlink a device, then go to Microsoft Store and try again.” I then have to login and delete a computer from the listing.
While most businesses will likely join their PCs to Microsoft 365 accounts anyway, or use deployment mechanisms that avoid the out-of-box experience, I know when I’m testing various systems I often set them up without an account. (The out-of-box experience process ensures that a user deals with various questions and issues during set-up.) I also often set up virtual machines without an internet connection — another new mandate with this preview release.
Despite the account requirement, there appears to already be step-by-step workarounds though they look a bit complex. Bottom line: there are clearly ways around this issue for those that still individually deploy Windows PCs and virtual machines. But Microsoft should recognize users sometimes need to set up machines without mandated account settings.
Of course, for multiple Windows deployments, you should be using tools like Autopilot. With it, you can bypass the initial setup of a local account and go straight to entering domain information. And when you get to the account question on-screen, (assuming you have Azure Active Directory or Microsoft 365) you can entire Microsoft 365 credentials and bypass setting up a local account or Microsoft account completely. Or you can try autounattend.xml and use a process to preload the setup to Windows 11.
Finally, don’t forget to give feedback to Microsoft on this issue. Open up a new bug in the Windows feedback application or vote up an existing bug. Microsoft has said that items that show up in these preview versions might – or might not – show up in the final version of Windows 11. If you feel strongly about it, be sure to let Microsoft know.