Microsoft is facing criticism that its subsidised schools PC scheme remains too restrictive, despite scrapping the barrier of entry to the programme for resellers.
After a summer lull, the Shape the Future/Technology Access Scheme has been relaunched as a pilot in four countries, including the UK, under the "Shape the Future Breadth" banner.
Under the latest iteration of the scheme, Microsoft has removed the requirement for resellers to secure a letter of eligibility committing to selling 3,000 devices into the education space.
However, multiple channel sources we spoke to said the changes would do nothing to resuscitate the scheme after severe restrictions on the types of devices permitted were introduced in March.
The notebooks, tablets and desktops permitted in the scheme are predominantly entry-level devices based on Intel Atom or Celeron technology, those involved in the scheme told us, and this will not change under the new programme.
"We are very interested in the programme but it just isn't suitable in its current form," fumed one system builder, who wished to remain anonymous.
"The hardware restrictions are based on Microsoft's Chromebook-compete strategy, which is a global strategy that seems to be more focused on the US. No salesperson with any level of emotional engagement with their role is going to sell schools something that is not going to last three years. The Celeron brand is also poisonous – nobody wants to go near it as historically it has been Intel's poorest-performing processor."
Alex Tatham, UK managing director at Westcoast (pictured), agreed: "The products on Shape the Future are pretty low-end Celeron products that actually schools don't want. Unless the OEMs put some better product behind it, which Microsoft may not want them to do, then it's not a programme we will put any marketing behind."
Two other system builders we spoke to echoed these comments, with one claiming that "five per cent or less" of schools' PC requirements are now served through the scheme.
Microsoft launched Shape the Future in 2012 as a way to drive down the cost of devices in schools based on the cost of the Windows component of the devices. It dropped the price it charged OEMs for Windows through the scheme to a nominal $1 last January, although sources say that price has now risen to nearer to $10 (£6.59), depending on the type of device.
With each iteration of the programme, Microsoft has also become more laissez-faire over entry requirements, dropping the volume requirement in increments from 20,000 to 10,000 to 3,000, and now finally to zero.
The latest changes will mean effectively any reseller can get involved, while independent schools, as well as state-funded ones, are now apparently also eligible for inclusion at an end-user level. Shape the Future Breadth, which has been launched as a pilot in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, covers Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 devices, and not Windows 7. It's not clear how long the pilot will run, or if and when it will be rolled to other countries.
According to sources, the scheme effectively wound down over the summer because most partners' LoEs expired in June.
"Since the scheme changed [in March] no one is selling any STF SKUs in the UK, barring inventory that been left over," said a source. "The tier ones [manufacturers] have been extremely diligent in moving stock around in various countries and so we are still seeing a lot of STF devices that don't meet the new hardware requirements. We thought that would be a theme in the summer for the busy education period, but we didn't expect that to continue until October. And that's really servicing a failure in the programme, which is that the technical requirements aren't suitable for this market."
Microsoft had not responded to our requests for comment at the time this article went to press.
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