Unbeknownst to many, it seems, Microsoft are pushing a new referrals scheme for preinstalled Office 2007s. The “highlights”:

  • OEMs can ship a disabled version of Office 2007 on every computer that they ship;
  • customers can buy a license – potentially online – and put it into their computer, to activate the dormant suite;
  • customers can purchase any version of Office: more basic versions come with the free trial of the full versions, too;
  • OEMs get a referral fee every time a customer of theirs activates Office.

You can see these new types of licences looking at you usual web store or something. You don’t get an install media or anything; you just get a number to type into your PC.

From the point of view of the customer, there are some downsides: in particular, if you lose your original hard drive, it sounds like you’re going to be quite screwed. You’ve lost your pre-install of Office, and presumably you’re going to have to pay for a media from somewhere, or something, assuming you can even reinstall it. Of course, if you’re the usual OEM customer, you’ve lost your entire operating install recovery partition too, so perhaps the loss of the Office suite seems minor in comparison.

From the point of view of free software, this is a worrying development. People often underestimate Microsoft, and the common refrain heard is “How can you compete with a free product?!”. It seems Microsoft have found a solution: you give people financial incentives to spread it around as far as possible.

Not only does it mean that Office will be much easier to install – after all, OpenOffice.org is a 110Mb download, and even in this age of broadband that’s still a fair amount of effort – but it means that OEMs will be doing post-sales work: they can still make money from customers who choose to “upgrade”. That’s going to be very difficult to compete with.

Is this bundling? Technically, I suspect it’s not: it’s just a very attractive offer. In reality though, it’s extremely similar, and the effect is just the same. And a rose by any other name …