Microsoft's decision to begin effectively giving away Windows to schools in England and Wales has been hailed as a masterstroke by resellers, but the vendor has come under fire for its failure to promote the strategy properly.
As revealed last week by CRN, from 1 February Microsoft began offering its operating system to system builders participating in its Shape the Future (STF) programme for just $1 in a bid to oust Google and Apple from the strategically important schools market.
Assuming the entire cost saving is passed on by the channel, the price of an average Microsoft PC or tablet will fall by £35 - or about 15 per cent - for schools using the scheme, according to some estimates.
But the price slash was just one element of a raft of far-reaching improvements Microsoft has made to STF, which has until now failed to gain traction due to its restrictive terms.
Microsoft confirmed in a brief statement to us that the threshold for entry into the scheme for suppliers has been lowered from 10,000 to 3,000 devices. Schools and colleges can now use the scheme for general refreshes rather than just for projects that conform to the government's one-device-per-pupil mantra, and a wider variety of school workers, including administrative staff, now qualify.
Meanwhile, we understand that OEMs and system builders can now become directly accredited, enabling them to make STF stock available to the channel through distribution. This will mean resellers no longer have to buy units in bulk from the manufacturer.
It's certainly a sweeping overhaul designed to ensure schoolchildren joining the workforce have been educated using Windows rather than Android or iOS.
But, thus far, Microsoft appears to have made few public noises about the changes, something that Andrew Henderson, managing director of Lanway, which has signed up to STF in partnership with system builder Zoostorm, felt was "disappointing".
"For me, this is Microsoft's response to Apple and Google stealing marketshare in the client and operating system space," he said.
"But it's not done a great job of communicating out such a huge piece of news to the channel and schools. Microsoft should be helping people like us make a big song and dance about it. It's all been very disjointed."
Henderson (pictured) said most VARs would choose to pass all the OS cost savings onto the end user, meaning schools will be able to get about 15 per cent more Windows PCs and tablets for their money.
"I don't believe this is a margin opportunity for us but it is a way for our schools and the taxpayer to get more for less," he said. "I don't want kids to understand how Google and Apple tools work. If a school leaver joins us on an apprenticeship scheme having only known Apple or Google, it's a steep learning curve to learn the Microsoft stack, which most businesses operate on."
Nick Berry, head of education at Softcat, which has been a STF partner since March 2013, hailed the changes as a major opportunity for schools as they gear up to apply for budgets for summer projects.
"The changes make it a much more compelling offer and easier to understand for the reseller, manufacturer and customer," he said.
"We will look to drive off the back of this into the busy summer months. It can only help schools that are trying to do things around one-to-one devices for students and staff and also IT in schools more generally."
Google made a massive splash in the US schools market last year by plying schoolchildren with free apps and is now looking to give Microsoft a bloody nose in the UK education sector by replicating the strategy here. Meanwhile, iPads are now a near ubiquitous sight in UK schools.
Shaune Parsons, managing director of VAR Computerworld Wales, who also expressed an interested in signing up to STF, sympathised with Microsoft's plight.
"They've had their arses whipped," he said. "Apple are producing iPads, including OS X, for cheaper than what Lenovo can produce on an equivalent tablet because a large chunk of the price goes on the operating system. They needed to do something and do it quickly."
Parsons added: "I've asked them to let me know what I need to do to sign up, as the changes mean we can now join the same scheme as the big boys. The only thing I wish is that they'd let us have access to the Surface Pro."
James Reed, director of PCs and software at Tech Data UK, revealed the distributor is looking to get more involved with STF following the changes.
"It becomes really exciting with the changes that have been made but we do need to make it smooth for the channel to take advantage of," he said.
"We've been working with Microsoft for a long time and my view is that they've always done a good job of taking technology into schools. These changes fit that ongoing strategy."
Microsoft declined to offer us an interview for the article, or provide us with more detailed information on the changes.
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