While most of Microsoft was off skiing on nearby mountains, one major release quietly escaped from Redmond during late December. Windows Intune, the firm’s quickly evolving cloud-based PC and device management solution, was updated to its fourth major version. Not bad for a service that debuted in early 2011.

Although I previously had small reservations about the price—and still almost pine for some combination of Intune with Office 365, with the commensurate monthly savings such a tag-team should entail—I’ve also always found Intune to be a compelling offering. Indeed, at the time of its original launch in March 2011, I noted in "Windows Intune Brings PC Management Into the Cloud" that it was a bellwether product, of sorts, for Microsoft’s transition from traditional software to cloud-based services.

The original vision for Intune was for this service to eventually mirror the on-premises System Center offerings. But starting from scratch, Microsoft did something that we can see in other traditional-to-cloud transitions such as those experienced by Office servers such as SharePoint and Exchange Server: The cloud-based offering starts off simpler but progresses functionally over time. Intune, however, is an even more radical version of this change. For example, the first version used much simpler and linear policies for device management that made previous management methods, such as Group Policy, look archaic and complex by comparison.

Over time, then, Microsoft evolved its vision for Intune as it evolved the product itself. Windows Intune 2.0, released in October 2011, added one major new feature in software distribution as well as a slew of smaller improvements. And as I noted in "With v3, Windows Intune Takes a Stand in the Enterprise," the third release added device management via Exchange ActiveSync (EAS), supporting iOS (iPhone, iPad) and Android handsets and tablets.

It was with that third release that the future of Intune began to diverge fairly radically from that of System Center. And although Intune is a bit more radical than other Microsoft software-to-cloud transitions, it’s worth noting that as the services versions of Microsoft offerings (SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, and so on) become more powerful and achieve a rough parity with their on-premises cousins, things are going to change. That is, although Microsoft will of course continue to offer on-premises versions of these products, the company will also strive to make the services versions more powerful, more affordable, and more compelling overall. As time goes by, the gap between the services and software versions of the same products will grow.

Intune is unique. And though Microsoft does offer device-management capabilities in System Center, the company came to realize that the unique requirements of these mobile devices made this capability a more natural fit for a cloud-based service than for an on-premises server. The reason is simple: These devices will never be added to the corporate domain anyway, and they will rarely or never be connected directly to the corporate network. Because they are in effect separated both physically and logically from the corporation, it makes sense to manage them with a service that’s pervasively available via the Internet and also outside the corporation.

With Windows Intune 4.0, as I call it -- Microsoft refers to this as Intune Wave D, because it’s an online service that doesn’t get traditional, separate “releases” like an on-premises product -- Microsoft is naturally adding support for its latest mobile devices. This includes Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8, the latter two of which can be managed via EAS but can’t join traditional Active Directory-based domains. Microsoft is also making a transition from EAS to Mobile Device Management (MDM), which requires placing an agent on the device but is also more powerful. Apple’s iOS has supported MDM for years, and Intune can utilize this support, but Android is still EAS-based in this release. (Microsoft’s new mobile platforms of course support MDM agents.)

The best part about Intune 4.0 -- excuse me, Wave D -- might be the new pricing structure. Whereas Microsoft previously charged $11 per user per month, the company now also offers a more affordable $6 entry point that lacks the Software Assurance rights and Windows 8 Enterprise license. But each Intune license can still be used to manage up to five devices.

According to ZD’s Mary Jo Foley, Intune Wave D went live in late December and Microsoft will officially begin promoting it sometime this month and existing customers will be able to upgrade starting January 13. I’ve not seen it yet. But I alluded to Microsoft’s evolution of Intune a few months back in " Taking Surface to Work" after speaking with the firm about the coming changes, and I noted that the new Intune would offer more granular management capabilities than does EAS. But now that this release is shipping in the wild, I’ll be going hands-on to see what changes Microsoft has wrought. I’ll have an update in the coming weeks.