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It’s rather interesting, really. I know many people who hate both Microsoft’s Software Assurance plan and Red Hat’s Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Red Hat Network.

They’re similar plans. You pay your money and you get all of the goodness both companies can give you for their respective software for a year or three. But one, Software Assurance, has been something of a flop, while Red Hat’s new licensing plan has taken it from being merely the leading Linux company to being a leading ($3.2 billion market cap) IT company.

Why? If you look at them closely, it looks like you get more out of Software Assurance (SA). I mean, with SA, I crib from Microsoft’s own site, you “acquire the latest software automatically, spread payments annually and extend the workplace to the home.” And Red Hat, as we know, has abandoned the home market except for people who like the bleeding edge of Fedora technology.

Click here to read about users’ Red Hat gripes.

After talking to end-users, IT staffers and resellers, I think I know why Red Hat has been successful. The big reason to go with either plan is so that you’re guaranteed to get the latest software at no charge over the course of the agreement. With Red Hat, though, you also get system management support, a lot of it, via RHN (Red Hat Network).

For businesses that are still getting their feet wet with Linux, RHN can make the difference between swimming to commercial success and drowning in technology confusion.

With Linux, you also can see real improvements with the operating system on a yearly basis. Even without the major jump up in enterprise functionality that will come with the next version of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), which will be based on the Linux 2.6 kernel, you can see—and use—the improvements from one update of Linux to the next.

Next Page: What you’ve gotten from Microsoft lately.

Whereas what you’ve gotten from Microsoft is, well … not that much over the past three years. Yes, there have been endless patches, but Microsoft has had to make those patches available for free for everyone since without them, the seemingly endless number of security exploits that Windows and its programs are subject to would wreck everyone using Microsoft products.

Microsoft has been so busy fixing things—and adding “features” that entrap companies into having to buy new and expensive Microsoft server infrastructure programs—that there really have been very little practical improvements in its programs.

I defy anyone to point out anything in Office 2003, for example, that’s so much better than Office 2000 that you’d want to upgrade from one to the other. I say this as someone, by the way, who uses Office 2000, 2003 and OpenOffice on a daily basis, and not as a Linux/open-source snob.

Oh, there have been good new Microsoft products as well. Server 2003 is, to my way of thinking, the best of the lot. But even in the Microsoft shops I know, most of them are perfectly happy with Windows 2000. I hear that about a lot of Microsoft’s new programs from Microsoft fans. They just don’t see any compelling reason to upgrade. For these users, SA has become a burden, not a help.

Looking ahead, as the first lot of SA licenses gets ready to expire, it gets worse. The only significant update on a Windows user’s horizon is Longhorn, which may or may not show up in 2006. Is it worth locking yourself in to Microsoft for what may prove to be a very troublesome desktop? Particularly when Linux desktops are improving by leaps and bounds? I don’t think so. And I’m willing to bet that Microsoft’s SA subscribers are going to agree with me.

Red Hat users? They renew their licenses, albeit with some grumbling, at a 90 percent rate. Microsoft says it won’t know what its SA renewal rates will look like until sometime in 2005.

Hmm … I wonder which one is doing better. I can make a pretty good guess, but I already know for a fact who’s doing better in what they’re getting for their subscription money: Red Hat’s customers. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late ’80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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