Microsoft this week announced the immediate availability of Windows Intune 2, the new version of its cloud-based PC management service. Don't worry if you think that's a typo, since the first version of Intune shipped less than 7 months ago.

Intune 2 delivers a number of useful new features, the most obvious of which is its software distribution capabilities, and of course it retains all the great functionality from the initial version of the service. Best of all, Microsoft intends to keep up this torrid release pace and deliver new versions of Intune on a regular cadence, not just to achieve "smart parity" with the company's mature on-premises management products, but to exceed them where possible as well.

"Eventually, Windows Intune will deliver more management capabilities than the on-premise[s] versions of System Center," Microsoft's Eric Main told me. "And it will do so at less cost and higher productivity."

Them's fighting words. So what does Windows Intune 2 offer today?

As with the original version, Intune 2 is a cloud-based PC management solution, targeted at businesses of all sizes, and available in monthly subscription form. It includes a simple, web-based management console interface, a client agent, and a bundled client security solution based on Forefront. Each Intune 2 client license includes free upgrade rights to Windows 7 Enterprise as well.

Carrying over from v1 are some core PC management features, including a simplified (non–Active Directory) management model with simple (non–Group Policy) policies. You manage PCs in groups, including approving service packs, hotfixes, and other updates, and you can view a wide range of information about each PC, including a full software inventory. Each licensed PC gets a copy of Windows Intune Endpoint Protection, which is essentially a managed version of the Forefront Endpoint Protection client and is similar, from a user experience standpoint, to Microsoft Security Essentials. You get environment health alerts with notification rules, software inventorying, reporting, and license management as well.

Windows Intune was pretty full-featured right out of the gate, but there was one major piece missing, and that's been addressed in v2. I'm referring of course to its centralized software distribution capabilities, which Microsoft tells me was the number-one customer request for this version. It works as expected, and there's a handy Software Publisher wizard that should make short work of most commonly used applications. (One exception: You must have a volume license version of Microsoft Office 2010, I discovered after much futzing about, to deploy that particular solution.)

But Intune 2 isn't just about software distribution. It also adds:

Remote tasks. From the management console, you can now right-click a computer and choose to run a limited number of remote tasks on that PC, including malware scans, malware scanner update, and a PC restart.

Read-only admin access. In the first step toward admin delegation, Intune 2 now supports a read-only view of the management console so that certain employees can simply view information, such as software inventories.

Improved reporting. Intune 2 supports improved hardware inventory reporting with filtering for things such as PC manufacturer, chassis type, available disk space, installed memory, and CPU speed. Customized reports can be saved and re-run later at any time.

License management improvements. Intune's licensing management capabilities are extended to other types of Microsoft licenses (retail and OEM) and, more important, to third-party licenses as well. Note that there's no enforcement here; this is simply a way to ensure you're fully licensed for all the software you're using.

There's a lot more, including offline PC agent installation, additional language support, and various fit and finish changes to the management console. (The PC agent has been updated slightly, but that's not something users will notice.)

Not quite a year into Intune's life cycle, I was curious if Microsoft had any data to share regarding which customer groups are using the service. Eric Main told me that Intune is in use with a variety of customer types but that it's most popular with customers that don't have any management infrastructure at all and larger companies that do in fact have PC management capabilities already but don't have a good way of managing highly mobile PCs that are usually out of the office.

This makes sense to me. Intune is exciting functionality for smaller, non-managed companies and will be familiar and obvious to anyone who is already managing PCs with more complex, on-premises solutions like System Center.

The one sticking point for small businesses, however, is the cost. At $11 per PC per month, Intune is reasonable for medium- and large-sized businesses, but for today's smallest businesses, the alternative is of course no management infrastructure at all. (For an additional $1 per PC per month, Intune customers can also access the full Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack suite, which is a great bargain as well.)

I'd also like to see some form of licensing combo with Office 365 and/or Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, primarily as a means of bringing down the cost of using two or more Microsoft services in tandem. But maybe that's something that evolves over time. Certainly, Intune is moving ahead rapidly as-is.

For customers who are already using Intune, you'll receive an email notification sometime between now and the end of the year that will explain the simple process of moving from v1 to v2, which basically just involves logging on after the changeover 2 weeks after being notified of the pending change. Because the new v2 features are completely additive, you'll still retain all the functionality from before plus the new features described above. (If you were on the beta as I was, it's time to start over: Beta accounts won't carry over to the shipping version of Intune 2.)

Intune 2 looks like a solid update to me, and the speed at which Microsoft has delivered it is nothing short of astonishing. The future of computing is in the cloud, and if Intune is any indication, Microsoft is embracing it whole-heartedly. Aside from some pricing concerns for the smallest of businesses, I recommend it highly.