Microsoft cuts Ultimate licenses for volume buyers

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

During most of 2007, buyers of Microsoft’s volume-licensing bundle were allowed to run one copy of Vista Ultimate on each machine covered by the arrangement.

Microsoft quietly changed this policy, however, and now allows businesses to get only one Vista Ultimate product key for every 100 copies of Vista Enterprise they purchase.

Software Assurance users hit limits on Ultimate

The change in policy affects businesses that license Microsoft software in bulk through the Redmond company’s Software Assurance (SA) program.

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Among other things, SA allows customers to get multiple copies of Microsoft products at a steep discount. In addition, some products — such as Vista Enterprise, the edition of Vista that’s aimed at large corporations with complex IT needs — are available only through Software Assurance.

Here’s what changed:

Formerly 1-to-1 coverage. According to the Vista Ultimate FAQ on the Microsoft Volume Licensing site, “For each Windows license covered under Software Assurance, you are eligible to run Windows Vista Ultimate on a desktop covered under Software Assurance during the term of your Software Assurance coverage.” This policy ended on Dec. 1, 2007. (Note: The FAQ refers to a deadline of Nov. 1, 2006, but this was extended to Nov. 30, 2007, for companies that wanted licenses for Ultimate, according to page 62 of the February 2008 Microsoft Product List, a 127-page .doc file.)

Down to 1 per 100. Under the new policy, most buyers of Software Assurance can get only 1 Vista Ultimate product key for every 100 copies of Vista Enterprise they’ve purchased.

Only 5 copies below 600 seats. SA buyers who have fewer than 600 licenses for Vista Enterprise can get no more than 5 product keys for Vista Ultimate.

The Software Assurance Benefits page on the Microsoft Partner Program site now says, “Windows Vista Ultimate is ideal for consumer scenarios,” not for large companies.

One of the main benefits of Vista Ultimate over Vista Enterprise is that Ultimate contains Media Center Edition, Microsoft’s multimedia playback environment.

The SA benefits page suggests that Microsoft is hearing from some unhappy buyers. “In response to Windows Vista Enterprise customer requests,” the page says, “in February 2008 we are introducing a DVD Playback Pack that enables playback of DVD, MPEG-2, and 5.1-channel Dolby Digital files.” This pack is priced at U.S. $4.32 per playback device, according to Microsoft.

Not every affected customer is taking the change lightly. “Software Assurance is effectively just an upgrade program,” writes Bill Forney, a software architect who blogs at Windows Live Spaces. “They can put more stuff into it all day long, but none of my small to medium-sized business customers are interested in anything but the software itself, and I’m sure they’re going to be hopping mad when they find out that some marketing or legal dufus has decided that they should take this away in hopes of increasing their bottom line in Ultimate upgrade sales.”

Why treat Ultimate as a lesser Vista version?

Microsoft’s new licensing scheme means that any organization that was planning on standardizing on Vista Ultimate — or even just installing Ultimate on 10 out of every 100 workstations — will now have to pay full price for nearly all of the individual copies of Ultimate they want to deploy.

According to a Microsoft spokesman, the policy switch was announced to customers on Nov. 13, 2006, “and to partners and industry analysts before it was announced to customers, to ensure that these advisors would be able to address any customer questions.” That gave customers 18 days notice that Vista Ultimate would no longer be provided to every end user covered by Software Assurance. (Microsoft policy does not permit the media to identify public relations spokespersons by name.)

Why the change? It’s now clear that the Ultimate edition is not a superset of every other version of Windows Vista. The Windows Vista Ultimate page of the Microsoft Volume Licensing site articulates three things the Enterprise edition has that Ultimate does not:

Deployment and activation. Vista Ultimate lacks Enterprise’s ability to activate multiple computers at the same time. Instead, Ultimate uses consumer activation technology, which means each copy must be activated individually.

According to the Microsoft spokesman, Ultimate’s lack of support for volume licensing (VL) exists for both technical and policy reasons: “As Windows Vista Ultimate contains consumer features such as Media Center, Movie Maker, and DVD Maker, we did not anticipate that enterprise customers would want to deploy Windows Vista Ultimate broadly throughout the enterprise, and therefore, chose not to add support for VL.”

Manageability. Microsoft states that “Some of the consumer features in Windows Vista Ultimate, such as Windows Media Center, cannot be managed by using Group Policy.”

The Group Policy editor can, in fact, enable and disable Media Center, as is documented in a posting on MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network).

But, as the Microsoft representative points out, “you cannot configure settings, such as pre-populating the correct cable provider for the Electronic Programming Guide. Other features in Windows Vista Ultimate that are not supported by Group Policy include DVD Maker and Movie Maker. Internet Explorer, by comparison, provides hundreds of different policies for IT to control.”

Microsoft’s spokesman explains the missing Group Policy controls as a matter of scheduling, saying, “We simply did not have enough time to add those features.”

Support. Because it is classified as a “consumer” product, support for Vista Ultimate is limited to a maximum of 5 years after first release, compared with 10 years of support for Vista Business and Vista Enterprise.

Forney, for one, finds the lack of manageability and support to be poor justification for withholding Ultimate from Software Assurance buyers.

“If that’s true, who controls that?” he writes in his blog. “Microsoft does. Who’s a bunch of lazy <insert expletive here>s for not making it manageable in the first place? Again, Microsoft are. So in the end, that argument has no merit at all.”

Forney continues, “The whole idea of Ultimate is to be the edition that includes everything and not just some of the pieces of the other editions. That is how it was marketed anyway. If it isn’t that, then change the name to Media Center Edition and stop talking about it like it is that.”

Microsoft’s mixed message on Vista Ultimate

Microsoft has promoted various messages about Vista Ultimate. The 316-page Vista Product Guide states that Vista Ultimate is for consumers and small businesses, as well as for the “dual user” who “wants to have a single PC for both work and personal activities including digital entertainment” (page 8).

The company also promoted the idea that Vista Ultimate is the version of Windows that has everything. The Vista Product Guide refers to Ultimate as “the flagship edition of Windows Vista,” boasting that it has “the advanced infrastructure of a business-focused operating system. … For users who want their PC to be great for working at home, on the go, and at the office, Windows Vista Ultimate is the no-compromise operating system that provides it all” (page 10).

The comparison table on pages 17 to 21 of the product guide shows Ultimate having every feature that’s present in any edition of Vista. The only disadvantage the guide mentions is that Ultimate only qualifies for 5 years of support, as opposed to 10 years for Business and Enterprise.

Promotions such as Microsoft’s “Choose an Edition” page still extol Vista Ultimate. “Easily shift between the worlds of productivity and play with the most complete edition of Windows Vista,” the page says. “Ultimate provides the power, security, and mobility features needed for work, and all the entertainment features that you want for fun.”

In the past, consumer versions of Windows (such as Windows 98 and Me) have clearly been underpowered compared to their enterprise siblings (Windows NT and 2000). Windows Ultimate marks the first time an edition of Windows has been hyped as having all of the features of an enterprise OS, but is getting less support.

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Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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