Microsoft beta download fee draws flak

Some users claim it is wrong to charge for an unfinished version of Office 2007, while others think the move is aimed at screening testers.

Microsoft's latest move to charge users for downloading a copy of Office 2007 beta has drawn flak from some in the user community.

Early this month, the software behemoth imposed a nominal fee of US$1.50 to offset the cost of bandwidth consumed by each Office 2007 Beta 2 download.

"Due to the overwhelming demand, we have had to make the business decision to implement a cost recovery measure for future Beta 2 downloads while maintaining high download capacities," a Microsoft spokesperson told ZDNet Asia.

"We are not charging for beta [downloads] but cost recovery on the download service, similar to what is done for [users who request for the beta to be shipped to them in] DVD kits," she said. "Beta 2 is proving to be the most popular beta version of Office to date, greatly exceeding expectations."

According to Microsoft, Office 2007 Beta 2 has been downloaded more than three million times since it was launched end-May this year. Download numbers for the Asia-Pacific region were not available.

Paying to download an unfinished product, however, did not seem to go down well with some users.

Daniel Tay, founder of Singapore-owned Web and multimedia design company Web Puppies said he was "surprised" by Microsoft's actions.

"As [Microsoft is] a big company, I would expect them to absorb the cost of the beta downloads," Tay said.

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In its last fiscal year, ended Jun. 30, 2006, Microsoft had announced total revenues of US$44.28 billion for its last fiscal year, an 11 percent increase from the previous year. Its net income rose 3 percent to US$12.6 billion.

In fact, an ongoing online poll running on the ZDNet Asia site indicates that 67.2 percent of over 50 respondents did not think Microsoft should charge for the beta downloads since the software giant can well afford to pay for the bandwidth. Another 31 percent said users could always look for an alternative in OpenOffice, while just 1.7 percent agreed that the download fee was justified.

According to the Microsoft spokesperson, the software vendor "remains fiscally responsible to our shareholders", and pays for the bandwidth of each download.

Apart from its apparent financial prudence, the company might have other reasons for imposing the download fee.

Tay suggested that Microsoft could just be trying to exclude flippant users who download the beta "just for fun" and hence, may not provide useful feedback for the company to further develop Office 2007.

Syamsul Ramadan, a developer with a Singapore multimedia software company, did not mince his words when he described Microsoft's move as "unethical".

"The product still has a lot of bugs," he said. "Why should someone pay to download an unfinished product?"

Wilkinson Chew, an IT analyst at a global consultancy firm, said Microsoft should consider setting up more download mirror sites to ease the increased burden on its servers. "Or they could limit the number of beta testers, like what they're doing with Windows Vista through its CTP (Community Technology Preview) program," he said.

The Microsoft spokesperson said the company still offers the online test drive program for Office 2007, a Web-based trial that allows people to experience the beta without having to download the application.

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