Microsoft touts Software Assurance plan enhancements

Microsoft on Thursday officially unveiled its latest plans to beef up the controversial Software Assurance offering it introduced four years ago.

Sunny Charlebois, a product manager in the worldwide licensing and pricing group at the company, said Microsoft has been collecting feedback from volume licensing customers and sought to map the benefits to the ways in which customers use them in the software life cycle.

But Microsoft's plan to make a new enterprise edition of Windows Vista, due in fall 2006, available exclusively to companies with Software Assurance, a maintenance and upgrade-protection program, is already starting to spark discussion among IT professionals. The only companies that will be able to deploy Windows Vista Enterprise are those with an Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft, or those that have added Software Assurance to their Select volume license agreement for an annual fee of 29 percent of the license cost for the desktop products.

Robert Bagamery, a systems support specialist at Manitoba Hydro in Winnipeg, referred to the plan as "the latest Microsoft cash grab." He said companies should have the option to buy Windows Vista Enterprise without having to buy Software Assurance.

"You shouldn't have a gun to your head," he said.

Zeke Duge, CIO at US retailer Smart & Final, said via e-mail that he will wait until Microsoft has a "complete solution. The rollout is not well thought through, the products do not seem to be compatible, and the exclusivity pisses me off."

Microsoft first alluded to an enterprise edition of Windows Vista during a briefing session for financial analysts in July. CEO Steve Ballmer compared the plan to the introduction of the Professional Edition of Windows, which he said drove "literally billions of dollars'" worth of increased revenue growth.

One of the key features slated for Windows Vista Enterprise is Full Volume Encryption, a hardware-based data protection technology expected to be particularly helpful to someone who loses a laptop. Vista Enterprise also includes a copy of Virtual PC Express to enable users to run legacy applications in a virtual machine while transitioning to Vista. Administrators also gain the ability to localize a single disk image by including all worldwide Windows-supported languages to reduce the cost of global deployments.

Among the additional new Software Assurance benefits and enhancements being made available next March are additional training vouchers for Software Assurance customers with at least 30,000 Microsoft Office or Windows client licenses and support for problem resolution around the clock, instead of merely during business hours. Software Assurance customers will also gain access to desktop deployment planning services for one to 10 days, depending on the size of their Software Assurance investments.

A new offering called Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs, formerly code-named Eiger, is also being made available only to Software Assurance customers. The special thin edition of the Windows-based operating system provides the security features that Windows XP offers to those with older hardware.

Adrian Brown, CIO at Canal Insurance Co., compared the additional Software Assurance benefits to a sequence in the book Cheaper by the Dozen, where the father first shows his children a rundown house in order to make the mediocre one to which they're moving look better than the one they're leaving. Brown said he preferred the old licensing plan, where he could selectively buy product upgrades when he wanted, rather than paying an annual fee.

Some companies soured on Software Assurance after Microsoft failed to release product upgrades during the three-year contract time frames. Microsoft has since announced plans for interim releases of key products, such as Windows Server, to address the issue.

Alvin Park, an analyst at Gartner, said many clients expect an upgrade as part of their Software Assurance agreements, and they're upset if they don't get one. He said Microsoft has been trying to put enough value into the Software Assurance program so that customers will want to purchase it -- whether or not they get an upgrade.

Park said he is advising clients to re-evaluate their positions on Software Assurance, since some of the new benefits could save them money. For instance, a company that now pays for a multilingual user interface might benefit by adding Software Assurance now that the interface will be free of charge, he said.

But Park said he can't issue a blanket recommendation that Software Assurance will make sense for all companies. "Every customer is different in what they need and what they want," he said.

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