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So Now You Can’t Give Microsoft Away?

Jonathan Blum |Contributor

Attention tech start-ups: Here’s how to get thousands of dollars of business software — completely legally — for absolutely free.

Microsoft’s BizSpark, at least in theory, offers what cost-conscious new firms need: Software for up to three years, to qualified companies, for nothing.

Still, in a suggestion Microsoft’s business branding issues have reached new lows, the BizSpark free software program hardly tops many start-ups’ to-do list.

That’s too bad.

Earlier this year, Microsoft upped the BizSpark ante by offering many more programs. Now its high-priced Azure Web development package is also gratis.

To get a feeling for the value proposition for the newly improved BizSpark, my colleague Anthony and I gave the program a whirl. We applied as a firm for membership to BizSpark and, as such, access to the free software and other services and set out to see what the program could do for us.

(Full disclosure: My firm creates content for an unrelated division of Microsoft.)

What You Get

With almost minimal effort, we got a whole lot of valuable software for nada. Honestly, I am not sure what the disconnect with BizSpark is.

Sign-up could not have been simpler. Anthony merely filled out an online form and answered some basic questions. None were particularly demanding. We shared company specifics, some proof of our business and other data. We even tried to answer a question or two a bit sloppily to see if we would fall afoul of the sign-up.

The entire process took about 20 minutes.

With no follow-up, five days later we got instructions for fully functioning product keys for critical business tools such as Office 2010 and Office for Mac 2011 as well as wonky stuff such as Microsoft Forms Server.

Many more products are available, including SQL Server, Visual Studio and many others. Plus we got membership to an online community of other BizSpark companies.

All and all, BizSpark worked as advertised.

What You Don’t Get

Not every company qualifies. You don't get to keep the software forever. And clearly you open yourself up to Microsoft's marketing machine.

There are limits to Microsoft's generosity.

Your firm does need to be involved in some form of software development or technology business.

If you are opening a dog-walking service or the like, BizSpark is not for you.

The licenses also are for a limited term, mostly around three years, so eventually you will need to buy what you got for nothing — which is clearly the company's intent.

Be sure you understand that Microsoft is not running a United Nations development program here: The company intends to sell you the software you use, and it is not shy about reminding you of that.

Expect the full-court marketing email and messaging upsell.

Bottom line, I have to say, I cannot see a downside to BizSpark.

Assuming your firm qualifies — and Microsoft makes it clear what companies qualify and what companies don't — the program offers start-ups real value: a way to defer the cost of software they need.

At least based on this experience, I can't see why more firms don't at least investigate this offering.

For certain firms BizSpark should be a great solution.

In fact, the disconnect over BizSpark is so jarring that it raises a much darker question: Has Microsoft’s perceived value among businesses fallen to such depths that it actually struggles to give its software away? The answer is, apparently, yes.

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