WinXP Pro edition for £37? Educate yourself…

There is no checking in MS UK education licence sales

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When Microsoft launched Windows XP it also switched the way it sold software to students. Previously, if you bought software at savage discounts under the Student and Teacher License you had to provide some proof that you qualified, and then Microsoft would send you the software. This process has now been "simplified and improved" - you don't buy an empty box and send a note from your headmaster to Microsoft any more, you just buy the full working product, and install it.

So how does Microsoft check that you really are a student? The Register's mystery shopper went undercover to find out, but came up empty - as far as we can see, there's nothing to stop anybody in the UK buying the educational discount software, even if they're not qualified for the licence. That means you'd pay as little as £37.35 for an upgrade edition of XP Pro, compared with £132.49 at the same store for the same product, but with the normal licence.

We checked six or so major vendor sites in the UK. All of these sold education licence software, although it generally doesn't jump out of the home page at you. Prior to the launch of XP the qualification check was carried out by Microsoft - you'd buy an empty box, and send off the coupon inside together with proof that you qualified, so the stores themselves didn't have to decide whether to sell you the stuff or not. Now, however, the deal goes like this:

"NEW - Microsoft Student and Teacher Licence
"Simply go to your preferred software retail outlet, online vendor or reseller and purchase the Microsoft Office Standard for Students & Teachers box. All the CDs and manuals are inside the box. Simply open the box, install the software, get your Product Activation Key via the web or phone, finish the installation and then you can use the product. There will be more enhancements to this programme in January 2002."

That "January 2002" may be significant, and the enhancements may turn out not to be entirely welcome to bargain-hunting punters. But at the moment it seems to be wide open, and there's quite an Aladdin's Cave out there. Dabs.com has Office XP Developer, Professional and Standard at education prices of £299, £215 and £115 respectively, plus Standard for "Students/teachers" at £89. The latter has a stern note in the features section of the product description saying "THE CUSTOMER MUST NOT PURCHASE this product if they are not a qualifying student, parent/guardian or teacher. ONLY qualifying students and teachers are eligible to use this Student Licence product."

So there. None of the other sites we checked even went as far as telling you that it's naughty - if they've got any information on student licensing online, they certainly don't fling it in front of you as you proceed to the checkout with your student licence product. The Dabs prices for full non-student OXP product, by the way, are £639, £435 and £349 for Developer, Pro and Standard. All prices here exclude VAT. Dabs doesn't have a student licence version of Windows XP listed, but is still selling the old style coupon WinME/Win2k Pro upgrade for £39. Here it does clearly state you'll need to send your proof off to Microsoft.

Student prices for Office XP are around the same levels at Simply and PC World. Jungle, bless 'em, still seems to be selling the old coupon-based student Office 2000/XP, and lists it as its number one top seller. Action has the Mac version of Office XP for £83.06, but not apparently the Windows version. It does however have the coveted Microsoft Windows XP Pro Educational Upgrade on CD-ROM for the knock your socks off price of £37.35. The Action price for the non-educational XP Pro Upgrade, au contraire, is £197.63.

We had two just to make it look more suspicious, but nobody said anything, nobody stopped us on the way to the checkout, and two days later we have in our clutches two XP Pro upgrades. The only difference we can see is a sticker on the box saying "Academic Price, Not for use in a commercial environment" and the words on the CD itself. The licence agreement seemed the same as usual, so we just hit F8 and didn't read it, as usual. Presumably the Product Key can identify it as an education licence product, but if there's a specific education licence somewhere in the box or on the CD we haven't found it yet (there was a flier for SuSE Linux in the box, tsk); our guess is that this is a standard retail product with a sticker on it, end of story.

That in itself is interesting, because if it's possible to buy the software from a web site without even being aware of the licensing restrictions, and if you don't have to agree to the licence before you open the shrinkwrap or install it, then non-students possibly aren't in an entirely dodgy position. The label informs you it's an academic licence and you can't use it in a business, and on the CD it says "Academic Edition" and "For use by a qualified educational user only. Use of this product by non-educational users is a violation of the product license." This is written in silver on silver, so it's practically invisible.

On the Microsoft UK site itself, it says: "If you are not eligible to use Education Licensing and do so, you may be prosecuted under the Copyright Design and Patents Act 1988." Why this particular Act we know not. Nor do we know how many people Microsoft has actually prosecuted under it. Not many, we suspect...

So much for dishonesty. What about honesty? Who qualifies? So many people, it seems, that large sections of the population can buy and run education licence software with a clear conscience. You can't use it in a business, but apart from that you can buy the software if you're a student, a school kid, the parent of either of these, a part time student in a DfEE recognised establishment, at medical school, at an armed forces college, or in an education department in a prison. Public libraries, charities, museums, Local Education Authorities, the Department for Education & Employment itself plus its regional equivalents all qualify. The full chart can be viewed here.

Even if you don't qualify it oughtn't to be that difficult to save money by changing your lifestyle. Sign up for evening classes? Breed? Easy peasy. The Register's two academic edition copies of XP, since you ask, have been assigned to two schoolkids we prepared earlier, so it's pointless raiding us. For that, anyway... ®

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