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Microsoft is preparing for a year of Windows client and Office launches with tools to help customers penetrate the fog of Microsoft's licensing agreements and upgrades.

The company has announced the introduction of the Microsoft product licensing advisor, an online tool for customers to compare and price-out volume licensing plans. The product licensing advisor will help education and business customers "better understand their licensing options" Microsoft said on Tuesday.

Microsoft's service is being introduced in three versions, culminating with an offering next spring that will enable customers to assess so-called business "solutions" and look for "best product" scenarios. Ahead of that, between now and January, the service will compare programs and offer downloadable price estimates.

A key feature will be the ability, in January, to add use rights and new Software Assurance (SA) benefits, which are due to become available in March 2006, into the mix.

SA is Microsoft's unpopular and controversial upgrade program for volume licensing users that has, according to analysts, helped increase customers' Windows licensing costs.

SA promoted a customer backlash following introduction in 2001 and 2002, as increased costs accompanied little perceived return on investment. Planned upgrades to the Windows client, Office, developer tools and SQL Server database were pushed outside the lifespan of customers' initial two- and three-year SA agreements.

Since then, Microsoft has been working hard to "add value" to SA, adding incentives such as the ability to upgrade across products, home-use rights and training vouchers.

Changes due in SA next year continue that trend while their inclusion in the product licensing advisor will potentially help customers assess their real value and, er, realize the benefits of upgrading.

For example, a planned Windows Vista Enterprise Edition, a derivation of the client formerly known as Longhorn, will be made only available to SA customers. Windows Vista Enterprise Edition is expected to feature Microsoft's Virtual PC Express, due for release in early 2006, which will allow legacy applications to run on Vista PCs.

With Longhorn, Office 12 and BizTalk Server 2006 due, SA customers will - from March - become eligible for "desktop deployment planning services" from Microsoft Consulting Services or certified partners that provide provide them with a "deployment roadmap" while information worker workshops are to be made available for SA customers holding training vouchers.

Microsoft also plans to expand the number of training vouchers available. Organizations signed-up under its enterprise and select volume licensing agreements with more than 30,000 Office application of client licenses will get additional vouchers from next March.

The Microsoft product licensing advisor will be available here ®

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