Aiming to loosen Microsoft’s hold on the software market for education, rival Sun Microsystems is now offering schools an extensive collection of applications—from network and desktop operating system software to internet development tools—as well as quarterly refreshes and web-based training, all for less than $500 per year.

“Sun is giving back to academic and research institutions by providing low-cost access to software that will better equip today’s students for tomorrow’s workplace—and by making sure that educational institutions are never more than a few months behind on technology refreshes and are never obsolete,” said Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president of software for Sun.

Among the many products included in the deal is Sun’s StarOffice software, which compares favorably with Microsoft’s popular Office suite on almost every function, conceding only to certain macro capabilities available when creating spreadsheets and other documents, said Dinesh Bahal, director of education solutions for Sun’s worldwide business group.

The majority of classrooms, school libraries, and computer labs still use Microsoft productivity software, but Bahal said Sun’s education customers do not have to pay for individual software licenses, a perk that can translate into tremendous cost savings for schools.

“It’s free and comparable in terms of usage,” Bahal said of Sun’s software. “It’s free across the world.”

Well, not quite. Depending on what pieces of Sun’s new EduSoft Portfolio media kit educators wish to acquire, some fees do apply.

For $495 per year, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities will have access to the entire range of software in the portfolio. Besides StarOffice, the portfolio includes Sun’s Studio suite of tools for developing Java and UNIX-based applications, as well as the company’s directory services, which would enable school network administrators to create customized directories for keeping track of students and computers throughout their districts.

Other titles in the portfolio include Sun’s Solaris 9 Operating Environment, a UNIX-based server operating system (OS); GNOME, a Linux-based desktop OS for customizing desktop working environments; Sun Ray software for access to applications running on UNIX, Solaris, Java, and Microsoft NT operating systems; and eMail and calendar applications, enabling educators to organize and communicate more efficiently.

Although schools do not have to purchase licenses for any of these products, the $495 fee covers quarterly software refreshes to ensure that the applications are running with the latest patches, protections, and upgrades.

The total commercial value of Sun’s contribution to schools is estimated at more than $1 billion, the company said.

Of course, all of the software in the world would mean little to schools if educators and administrators were poorly trained and ill-equipped to use it. That’s why the EduSoft Portfolio also comes with free, web-based professional development, as well as discounted technology integration training and classroom education courses for schools.

These include classroom-based, instructor-led programs meant to provide teachers and college professors with information about how to teach UNIX and other computer applications to students in the classroom.

The whole idea, Bahal said, is not just to provide software and services, but also to reduce the total cost of ownership—from purchase and implementation to upkeep and production.

“It’s not just about installing the PC. It’s also about training, maintenance, and usage,” Bahal said. “All of the elements of total cost of ownership are attached.”

Bahal said Sun’s training courses place an emphasis on technology integration and how to incorporate applications into the fabric of day-to-day learning.

“Teachers often have a hard time with how to implement technology into the classroom,” he said, “[or] how to use [technology] in an educational context.”

Bahal called the offerings in the portfolio a “Chinese menu” and said schools can use only the products and services that suit their needs. If educators choose not to take advantage of the entire media kit because of the yearly fee, they still can use the online training programs at no charge and any of the other software in the EduSoft Portfolio for only the cost of the media themselves—for example, a nominal fee of $25 for the StarOffice product.

All nonprofit educational institutions are eligible for any of the products and services in the portfolio, as long as they pledge to use the offerings for bona fide educational and research purposes, Bahal said.

There are limitations, however. Schools cannot deploy the software through an internet portal accessible outside of school for use by parents and other individuals who are not using the products for educational and research purposes. “We don’t want [our products] getting into the hands of people who are not eligible,” Bahal said.

To make sure only nonprofit schools take advantage of the offer, educators first must contact Sun and register for the services in the portfolio.

Sun’s apparent generosity notwithstanding, competitors such as Microsoft caution that the cheapest solution doesn’t always provide the best alternative, especially where schools are concerned.

Despite Microsoft’s controversial new licensing fees, said Marcia Kuszmaul, manager of the company’s education solutions group, Microsoft has been commended by its school customers for providing discounts of up to 85 percent on some of its products for educational use.

According to Kuszmaul, schools don’t necessarily like the idea of being treated like charities. “Schools are enterprises,” she said. “We treat them like valued business partners.”

Sun denied requests by eSchool News to identify U.S. customers before the release of its EduSoft Portfolio, but at least one Canadian educator said he was looking forward to the offering.

“Sun’s EduSoft Portfolio will reduce our total cost of ownership and will give us the ability to evaluate the software in our own environment,” said Ted Dodds, associate vice president of information technology for the University of British Columbia. “This removes a cost barrier in making the latest technology available to our students, instructors, and researchers.”

Links:

Sun Microsystems Inc.
http://www.sun.com

Sun EduSoft portfolio
http://www.sun.com/products-n-solutions/edu/promotions/edusoft

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com