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Microsoft dabbles in Office rental

Not a real estate deal

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Days after foisting another generously priced version of Office on users, Microsoft is reportedly flirting with a pay-as-you go version of its desktop productivity suite.

According to veteran Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley, lucky customers in South Africa, Mexico and Romania are testing Office 2003, charged at $15 per month. The company will decide in coming months whether to extend trials to Office 2007.

The trial follows a similar scheme for Windows last year, called FlexGo.

The news comes days after Microsoft updated its desktop productivity franchise by launching Office 2007, which costs almost $700 at list price.

Before you get too excited, remember this. It would be a crude simplification to suggest Microsoft is responding to pressure from so-called Office 2.0 alternatives that live on the internet, as epitomized by Google Docs & Spreadsheets.

Rather, this is the latest safari conducted by Microsoft into an idea it's kicked around since the late 1990s - for new ways to deliver Office. Since then, Microsoft has tried - and failed - to realize hosted versions. The company has run several pilots but a fledgling service in Australia was yanked in the face of overwhelming user indifference.

Already, Microsoft's new pilot seems designed to go the same way. Users must return to their system builder to purchase more rental time, or risk being able to do nothing but view their Office documents. In the era of painless online service, it seems the concept of not putting the burden on the end users has yet to dawn on Microsoft. ®

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