Microsoft is planning to offer free use of its word-processing and presentation suite, Office 365, to students.
This would be considerably more exciting if similar — and free — alternatives under the auspices of companies such as Google and Apple didn't already exist.
Microsoft products have never been famed for their intuitiveness. Oftentimes the requirements that must be met to please a wide variety of corporate and private-end users result in programs with functions that are needlessly complex or obtuse.
In Word 2011, for example, there are nearly 50 modifiers that adjust anything from font size to interface design on the home screen alone.
I couldn't tell you what half of those buttons do — I'm writing this in Google Docs — but heck, if everyone and their brother don't claim proficiency in the Microsoft Office suite as part of their LinkedIn profile, I'd be surprised.
This change comes at a strange time for the company and the computing world in general. When I was a child, Microsoft was one of those titanous megacorporations that just seemed too big to fail.
But after shifting usage patterns devalued the PC space, and after several strange financial decisions by ex-CEO Steve Ballmer — I'm looking at you, Windows RT — the immortal company appears to be in unhealthy straits.
This month, in the ultimate example of corporate double-speak, Microsoft announced that it would be "reaugmenting" its workforce to the tune of 18,000 jobs. For those of you following along so far, that means 18,000 people are going to be out of work.
So what does this have to do about my gripes with a word-processing program?
Well, this ties back into the larger theme of profitability. Despite the ubiquitousness Windows PC operating system in the corporate and commercial space, the private sector has increasingly progressed toward alternative or mobile options in satisfying its high-tech needs.
Under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft is making a push to regain relevance in people's lives.
One way it proposes to do that is to inculcate brand loyalty in consumers at a time when it's particularly susceptible to influence — college.
Adolescents and young adults are uniquely susceptible to the effects of advertising, according to a study by the Association for Consumer Research.
"Get them when they're young and you've got a customer for life" seems to be the idea.
What better way to push your latest productivity software than by appealing to the busy college freshman, flush with loan money and poor impulse control? By making its basic software free, Microsoft ensures the new customers will be locked into its products far into the future.
That means not just software, but also the various hardware that runs Microsoft's programs — and that means money, money and more money.
Make a customer early, make an investment for life.