Microsoft is to add technical support, training, deployment planning and other side benefits to its controversial Software Assurance licensing programme this week, according to leaked documents.

The changes follow a set of improvements added in September 2003, and are designed to placate customers who feel the programme doesn't offer value for money. Software Assurance gives customers free access to upgrades for a three-year period, as well as a range of benefits including training and support discounts, in exchange for a subscription fee.
However, businesses are choosing to upgrade less and less frequently, and are often on five-year upgrade cycles, according to industry analysts. The programme replaced a popular option that allowed customers to pay a discounted rate for upgrades, and to upgrade at their leisure.

Delays in the rollout of Microsoft products such as Windows Vista, the successor to Windows XP, have also meant that many customers didn't get access to as much as expected. Such problems led House of Fraser to announce last week that it had dropped Software Assurance in favour of paying the full rate for upgrades.

The bundle of new benefits - expected to be granted retroactively to existing Software Assurance customers - is supposed to change the programme's negative image by cutting costs for support and deployment, and giving access to additional technology.

Several published reports, citing confidential sources, said Microsoft would add desktop deployment planning services to the programme. These services involve Microsoft customers helping customers arrange desktop rollouts. Customers spending $60,000 will get one free day of planning services, with $300,000 getting three days, $600,000 getting five days and $1.25 million getting 10 days, reports said.

Customers will get more free support incidents, depending on how much they spend, and the 24x7 Web-based incident support currently available to servers will be extended to more customer types, reports said.

Microsoft will offer more training vouchers for Office and Windows, will give a Windows Vista upgrade licence and a Virtual PC Express licence for each Windows client licence covered under Software Assurance, according to the reports. This version of Virtual PC is intended to allow users to run multiple versions of Windows simultaneously on a single machine, reducing compatibility issues.

Customers will also be granted licences to Windows Eiger, a stripped-down version of Windows XP intended as a stop-gap for customers wanting newer software but not yet ready to replace their old hardware, according to a report from industry journal Microsoft Watch.

House of Fraser said last week that it had ditched Software Assurance and opted to pay the full price whenever it upgrades software, after finding the programme had offered few advantages.

The retailer's problems with the programme stemmed from a combination of the company's own slow upgrade cycle and Microsoft's delays with major products such as Vista. House of Fraser said it had planned for upgrades to Active Directory and Windows 2000 to Windows XP to fall under the three-year licence term, but the upgrades had been put off.

The company also said it saw little point in many software upgrades, such as new versions of Office.

Microsoft said Software Assurance could help customers save money in some circumstances. "Software Assurance is designed to help organisations minimise cost and optimise resources associated with the planning, deployment, usage, maintenance and transition phases of the software lifecycle," said Mark Buckley, licensing manager for Microsoft UK.