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MS Office XP trial edition goes retail at $9.95, or free in the UK

If it's at all hackable, this does not seem smart to us ...

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Microsoft is aiming to ship over a million trial editions of Office XP via retailers, hardware manufacturers and even magazine cover mounts - and this before the product is officially "available." The 30 day trial version will cost $9.95 in the US, but Microsoft UK plans to offer the software as a cover mount with at least one major national publication here.

We're also told that Microsoft UK will be offering the trial edition free via its Web site from next month.

The target date for availability of the offer at retail and through hardware manufacturers ("certain" ones, says Microsoft, hello Dell) is May 31st, and the UK cover mount is also planned to roll in May. Which means whoever is doing it probably knows already, so send us your gleeful leak please. (N.B. It's not PCW, and would the marketing desperadoes who've been pestering MS UK for a deal since we first posted this story please desist)

Clearly Microsoft has decided to take a very large hammer to the problem of slackening sales of Office by seeding the world with large volumes of the very latest software. Just 30 days use (we know what you're thinking here, but hold on for a couple more pars) for $9.95 might not seem an absolutely great deal, but if it comes free on the cover of a £3-$4 magazine, well, you're maybe going to be interested. And it's not a major leap from this to start imagining it coming through the post in increasingly vast flocks, being given out at shows, at railway stations.

These are of course techniques pioneered by a desperate AOL to successfully fend-off the MSN onslaught all those years ago; Microsoft is just applying them to something different, or maybe not so different. We know Microsoft is/was also planning a rental edition of Office XP to be put out via major retailers. Information we received a couple of weeks ago from a rep for a major US chain suggested a major roadshow this month where free one-year subscription editions of XP would be given out.

We don't yet have a price for the one year sub, and it may be that Microsoft has drawn back from this and decided to go with the 30 days trial for $9.95/free instead. But do the numbers - $9.95*12 looks kind of like what Microsoft might like to be able to derive as income from a rental edition of OXP, so philosophically you have a similarity. And how does AOL get its money back from giving away all those CDs - so not so different after all, right?

But you've been very patient about that question you wanted to ask, thank you. There is, as we reported last week, a product key doing the rounds of the Internet that purports to be a "universal" one that disables product activation in the final version of Office XP. We've no way - yet - of proving that this key does so for the version that will go out at retail, and we can't yet prove that it will do so for the trial edition. But if the trial edition is vanilla RC1 code, then there's some likelihood.

MS UK anti-piracy chief Julia Philpott however tells The Reg that corporate "worldwide fulfillment product" keys will not work with retail code.

But even if that key doesn't work, so long as Microsoft goes ahead in issuing keys that do this to corporate buyers (which is currently thought to be the plan) these will quickly leak, so product activation won't be bullet-proof. The vast numbers of trial packs out there may turn out not to be so receptive to becoming live product, but some kind of 'key plus hack' looks probable, considering recent history.

It seemed to us that Microsoft is playing an extremely dangerous game here, so we asked about that this morning. The line seems to be that the universal key routine was a hack, but actually the universal key is corporate, while retail is likely to be key plus hack. The line is that product activation is by no means the perfect fix from Microsoft's point of view; Microsoft's objective is to get the small businesses who run unlicensed copies to pay up, rather than to clean up every last playground.

But if you spam the world with code that could potentially be used as full product, that's a whole new problem beyond just small businesses, surely? It just doesn't make sense to us.* ®

* It would certainly make some kind of sense to the people who say that piracy in, say, China, actually helps the company by establishing its software as the standard in areas where the people couldn't afford to buy it at any kind of sensible price anyway. But we'd be the last to suggest that.

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