Aiming to loosen Microsoft’s hold on the software market for education, rival Sun Microsystems is 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,” 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, 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 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 were 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.

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 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, 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.

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

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

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Sun EduSoft portfolio