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Microsoft shakes up Software Assurance

Microsoft introduces eight changes intended to address customer complaints that the program is too expensive, complex and restrictive.

Microsoft has revamped its Software Assurance licensing program in response to customer feedback that the scheme was too expensive, complex and restrictive.

On Thursday the software supplier unveiled eight changes to the program, which has come under fire for allegedly locking users into buying needless Windows upgrades.

The changes include a Desktop Deployment Planning voucher that customers with either Select or Enterprise license agreements can redeem for an on-site consultation of up to 10 days, based on the volume of Microsoft Office software that the firm licensed with Software Assurance.

The software supplier is also offering Information Work Solutions Services, including what it calls the Work Value Discovery Workshop--a one-day session--as well as a two-day Information Work Architecture Design Session to help IT specialists understand the architecture required to implement that software.

Under the new changes, users with Software Assurance on their client operating system will also have exclusive access to Windows Vista Enterprise, a top-end version of the next-generation Windows operating system scheduled for release in 2006, as well as Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs--a Windows variant aimed at helping customers improve security and manageability of their legacy hardware.

The Windows Fundamentals product, formerly known by its Eiger code name, is designed to turn older PCs into more-secure machines, in the process transforming them into a hybrid of a traditional PC and a thin client. A few programs, such as Internet Explorer, run locally on the machine. But if companies need to run more specialized applications, they are run remotely from a server. Microsoft said on Thursday that the product will be available in March 2006 and will be available only to those desktops covered by Software Assurance.

Software Assurance customers will also have exclusive access to Virtual PC Express, a feature of Windows Vista Enterprise that lets users run legacy applications on a legacy operating system in a single virtual machine.

Those with 30,000 or more information client licenses will receive additional vouchers that can be used for training from Microsoft Certified Partners for Learning Solutions.

Coverage has been expanded for Microsoft products that have moved from the mainstream support period into the extended support period. Since July 1, 2005, the annual fees to obtain an Extended Hotfix Support Agreement have been included as part of the Software Assurance benefit. Extended Lifecycle Hotfix Support enables customers to receive code fixes when needed, which Microsoft claims minimizes migration risks and reduces support costs.

Under the revamped licensing scheme customers also are no longer required to track their Software Assurance coverage by licenses in order to use phone support. Unlimited Web support is included for all Microsoft server products with Software Assurance coverage, and this support will be extended to include Open Value customers in addition to Enterprise and Select customers.

Andy Lees, corporate vice-president of server tools and marketing at Microsoft, claimed his firm had delivered the changes customers had asked for.

"This brings our customers three of the things they say they want most, 24?7 problem-resolution support for dealing with business-critical support needs, coverage of all the Microsoft software in their organizations, and seamless integration between Software Assurance and Premier Support problem-resolution incidents," said Lees in a statement.

CNET's Ina Fried contributed to this report.