When Office and Windows are given away

Low prices for education market hint at Microsoft's fears

If you are looking for an Office suite, let me inform you that Open Office 2.4 rocks; it's smart, easy to use, supports open standards, is free, can be distributed freely to your friends works on virtually any computer and now you can even get free training through the QCA approved INGOTs.

Best of all, Open Office.org's engineers have done a fantastic job reverse engineering Microsoft's .doc, .xls and .ppt formats so that OO has an unparalled ability to handle a range of file formats with fidelity, including VB macros. This achievement ranks with the other great interoperability open source project, SAMBA. The SAMBA team's duplication (improvement?) of MS's SMB networking protocol liberated Mac, Linux and Windows machines from their isolation.

Are Microsoft worried? I think they must be...

If you are a student and go to your favourite online today you will find something pretty similar to this; Vista Ultimate rrp £249.00... Student price £64.95; or amazingly, Office 2007 Pro rrp £395.95... a snip at £79.94.

These are some discounts, especially if we take into account that virtually the entire cohort of 16-19 year olds and 50 per cent of the under 21s in the UK qualify. Education discounting has increased steadily over the years so let's run with this trend and see where it leads.

The trend is to zero; free, no-purchase cost, nothing; can this be a possibility?

If you're a very rich company and money is no object, heavy discounting is quite possible, maybe not sustainable on a global scale and maybe not a great way to promote your brand value either but it's the old story, market share versus profit. Can you grab/keep enough before you go bust?

Obviously, market share of the next generation of 'Office' users is everything: de Facto standards depend on near monopoly.

Imagine then Vista and Office 2007 is offered to students free (a bit like Linux and Open Office but with proprietary licensing).

Imagine also a soupcon of brand-loyalty gewgaws (aka lock-ins) such as a quirky interface (e.g. Mac Office 2008), quirkier file formats (.docx). Finally even better, one may predict that if you signed up to MS's MESH you can also expect a free laptop from an obliging ISP to run all that free software.

Is there any evidence other than the price crashes mentioned above to fuel this scenario?

In fact there are a few indicators.

For example this April, as reported in a previous post, UK Gov in partnership with Microsoft launched a Microsoft-funded £6,000,000 computer literacy drive to bring office skills to those on the other side of the digital divide. For another, Vista comes with a trial Office 2007 suite which can only save in .docx format.

As an aside .docx, (possibly one of weirdest, least interchangeable, impossible to reverse engineer format currently around) very quickly puts school ICT teachers in a spin when their students bring in their work and it won't open. Yet another indicator: one ISP already offers a free Dell Laptop with a broadband account.

Finally, the famous OLPC sub $100 notebook project has just 'joined forces' with Microsoft and now sports a Microsoft Windows XP hack. Just how much of the $100 is the cost of the OS. One suspects not very much.

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