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MS XP previews morph into list building, market seeding

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Last week Microsoft announced a "Corporate Preview Program" for Office XP, giving "more than 500,000 corporate customers" the chance to check out pre-release code for the product over the next few (well, six actually) months. Today, a full seven days later, Microsoft released Office XP to manufacturing.

The CPP code is apparently based on Release Candidate 1 of XP, which itself was released around mid-February. At the time of the CPP announcement Microsoft clearly had CDs of the code ready to ship, as it was quoting three to five days for express delivery. It might even have had 500,000 (although we recall that being the MS-quoted magic number for he Win2k CPP as well)... but, why?

Do the numbers. Say Microsoft had two weeks from getting to RC1 to arrange enough volume CD pressings to be able to kick off the CPP on February 28th. So if it RTMs Office XP on March 5th (which it did), it could actually CPP the gold code and (we'll throw in another week because we're generous) announce this on March 26th. Basing the exercise on gold code when you're already going into manufacture of the full retail product wouldn't necessarily be a completely worthless exercise, because it's obviously a darn sight quicker to just run off the CDs than to put together the manuals, documentation, licensing and support packages. People who wanted to see Office XP a couple of months early would still get the chance.

And it's a tempting offer. It costs $19.95 a pop, that pop being not a single user product, but a kit that can be installed on up to ten computers. And you can order up to five kits, so you could roll it out to a reasonable sized office. You're able to use it up until August 31st, after which it reverts to "reduced-functionality mode," which means you can look at the files you made, but you can't touch until you buy an XP licence.

Despite the "corporate" tag, Microsoft merchandising seems decidely unchoosy about the target customers. So long as you fill in name, address, company, job spec etc and a credit card number, it would appear to be cool. So what have we got?

It's clearly another increment in the evolution of Microsoft beta code away from actual testing and towards product seeding and list building. First Microsoft went with widespread, public "betas" which had no influence on the final product (because they were pretty much final product). Then it hit on the wheeze of levying some kind of "handling" charge for the preview code, so this component of pre-launch marketing could be largely self-financing. And now it's shipping a preview just days before the product RTMs, making even the fiction of user input impossible to maintain.

Tsk. What can you do with them? And we can't help noting a couple of other points. Sure, the XP CPP code will be time-bombed, and it'll no doubt also be subject to Product Activation, as will the final shipping code. But time bombs get cracked, and so may Product Activation (the jury's still out on that one) - so is the benefit for Microsoft of getting the code out there worth the risks associated with showering the world with cheap CDs?

But then again, Microsoft will have a lot more information about the CPP participants than it will necessarily have about purchasers of the full product. You won't, we're assured, be compelled to register Office XP, and you won't have to give out any personal details when you go through the activation process. That's clearly not the case with the CPP, because although you might not fill in the right details, you're going to have to fill in a credit card of sorts, and an address of sorts - right?

Look for even more tempting database-building cheapies from Redmond RSN - we can't wait for the WinXP cover-mounts... ®

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