Battle between software giants turning local schools into war zone

By Jason Brown

Microsoft and Corel are expanding their software war to Ottawa-area schools in an effort to win the hearts and minds of students and their parents.

“The school is a very important strategy in this marketing process,” says Marita Moll, head of technology and research at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. “They’re building product loyalty.”

Microsoft fired the first shot on the new marketing battleground by launching the Family Technology Night program last week at Ottawa’s St. Daniel elementary school.

Schools that host one of Microsoft’s presentations receive free software for their trouble. Microsoft even raffles off software for the students and parents who attend the presentations.

Microsoft has made presentations at 5,000 schools in the U.S. and plans to travel across Canada doing the same. It invites every school that wants a presentation to contact the company.

Corel launched its counter-offensive two days later by announcing it will provide more than 5,000 Ontario schools with software packages that include word processing applications, Internet tools, and drawing programs.

The Ontario Ministry of Education is getting software for $1 apiece. Normally, Corel sells the packages to schools for $35.

The strategy behind the free or next-to-free software is to get children accustomed to it, in hopes their parents will buy the same software.

However, Microsoft’s presenter in the Ottawa area, Lisa Nanni, insists she isn’t a salesperson.
“I’m here to create links between home and school,” says Nanni, who also tea-ches computers at a junior high school in Hull.

The reaction to using children as a marketing tool has been mixed.

“We have a lot of concerns about public-private-sector relationships,” says Marita Moll.

“In the end, they could leave us very dependent on them for providing public education.”

Moll has another concern. She says schools are getting themselves into a loop where they must regularly upgrade software and the hardware needed to run it.

She says the software being given to schools is largely new and untested, and the required upgrades could quickly eat up limited resources and drain money from existing programs.

“We seem to be closing our eyes to this,” she says. “I think people need to look at what children need most for their education.”

But according to several parents who were at Micro-soft’s St. Daniel’s presentation, the free computer software is one of the better ways to compensate for the limited resources Moll is talking about.

“With all the cutbacks, it’s great to be able to get software for the school,” says John Taylor, father of two St. Daniel students.

Another parent, Danny Smith, says he learned a lot from Microsoft’s presentation and that it didn’t seem to him that it was too much of a sales pitch.

“The kids live in a free enterprise system,” Smith says. “You still have the choice to buy or not.”