Fasthosts' Office SaaS leaves Microsoft steaming

Microsoft has said that the Internet service provider Fasthosts, which has started offering a subscription-based version of Microsoft Office 2007, is infringing on the software giant's licence regulations -- but Fasthosts has denied this claim.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Microsoft has said that the Internet service provider Fasthosts, which has started offering a subscription-based version of Microsoft Office 2007, is infringing on the software giant's licence regulations -- but Fasthosts has denied this claim.

Earlier this week, the UK-based ISP and hosting company started selling a version of Microsoft Office which it advertised as being "streamed to your PC". However, unlike true hosted software, or software as a service (SaaS), it requires the user to download software to their client PC.

"Fasthosts' Microsoft Office product uses the SaaS model in that it is delivered and managed via the Internet," explained Mark Jeffries, Fasthosts' chief technology officer, on Thursday. Speaking with ZDNet.com.au's sister site ZDNet.co.uk via e-mail, Jeffries said that a "full version Microsoft Office, identical to the boxed product, is downloaded using a streaming service and saved locally on a user's PC".

"After one initial download, further small downloads are made for additional features and updates. When functions are used for the first time, features are seamlessly streamed in the background. The software is validated when connected to the Internet," explained Jeffries.

Jeffries claimed that Fasthosts' version of Office was the result of a partnership "with Microsoft and established market-leading experts in the field of software streaming". However, Microsoft has disagreed with this claim.

"Fasthosts is a valued Microsoft partner who we have a great relationship with", said Michala Wardell, head of anti-piracy at Microsoft UK, last week. "At present, streaming Microsoft products like Office 2007 via the Web infringes our licence regulations. Fasthosts have been informed of this and we are currently working with them to rectify this situation."

However, in a statement late on Friday, Fasthosts said it had "not been contacted by anyone from the Microsoft anti-piracy team". "Fasthosts went live with this service in the knowledge that such an offering would be compatible with [Microsoft's] SPLA [service provider licence agreement] after it was confirmed, via its streaming partners, that approval had been made by Microsoft for such services to be streamed under the SPLA," the statement read.

"Fasthosts has understood, and has had confirmed to it, that the facilitation of this approval is through the production of an addendum to the current SPLA, a decision confirmed in meetings between Microsoft European SPLA Division and a Fasthosts' software streaming partner in January of this year," Fasthosts' statement continued. "Fasthosts and Fasthosts' partners have therefore worked with the European and Worldwide SPLA teams in getting approval for this service prior to launch, in order to bring this innovative new offering to market."

While Microsoft has been clear about its plans to start offering some of its products on the hosted model, it has not officially launched any business productivity products along those lines. The hosted model involves software running from a provider's servers and being accessed through a browser, rather than being installed on the user's machine.

Generally run on a subscription basis, the advantages of the hosted model for the user include not having to pay for the software upfront, not needing as much processing power on the client side, and being able to benefit from updates being applied on the provider's servers rather than on the client machine. The disadvantages include a reliance on continuous Internet connectivity and the fact that the software can end up costing more than a boxed version if used over a sufficient length of time.

Jeffries has claimed that Fasthosts will shortly launch an "offline" mode for its Microsoft Office software service, "which will allow users to utilise their software offline, with only the occasional need to validate the software by connecting to the Internet".

The FAQs section of Fasthosts' Web site suggests that the service can be used to upgrade an existing installation of Office 2003 to Office 2007. Asked whether a user doing this would then invalidate their original Office 2003 installation if they stopped their subscription to Office 2007, Jeffries said: "Fasthosts' Microsoft Office software works independently of other Microsoft applications stored locally. Upon cancellation, the Fasthosts Microsoft Office would automatically uninstall."

Another notable element of Fasthosts' version of Office is the fact that its cheapest iteration, the educational version, priced at 4.99 pounds per month, does not -- according to the FAQs -- require "evidence of eligibility" to be passed on to Fasthosts. This is not normally the case with educational licences, which usually require some evidence to be shown to the retailer to prove that the user is indeed in an educational institution and not just trying to get a cheap version of the package.

"Fasthosts customers are asked to self-certify using the guidelines provided by Microsoft," said Jeffries in his e-mail.

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