Is a beta version of the suite code-named Office 12.0 worth twelve bits? That's a question some folks will have to ask themselves tomorrow.
That's when Microsoft starts charging $1.50 (about £0.80) for downloads of the Beta 2.0 version of Office 2007. The cost, according to the software giant, helps to cover the bandwidth charges it's incurring for the 500MB-plus download.
I can't think offhand of another example of a company charging customers to download a beta, but this isn't an entirely new precedent – the company has charged for CDs of betas before, and downloads, like shipments of physical media, aren't free for the company that's doing the sending.
Given that – and the fact that 80p is only 80p – the grounds for opposition to this development are ones of principle: since the whole point of the Office beta is to help Microsoft test a program it'll eventually make gazillions of dollars from, is it morally wrong to ask the people who do that testing to pay for the privilege?
If you're peeved by the fee on those grounds, I'm not going to try and convince you you're wrong. But I've been using the beta pretty successfully for a while now: given the choice between the shipping version of Office 2003 and this reasonably stable and usable beta, I'd choose the latter in a heartbeat. And do. Paying 80p to make that possible ranks pretty low on the totem pole of current moral outrages, I'd say.
Possible solution that Microsoft may or may not have considered: make the download free – but make it of a version that phones home with (non-personally identifiable) data about your use of the program, and crashes and other problems, to help Microsoft polish and debug the suite. You get the software at no charge; Microsoft gets the knowledge it seeks. Seems fair to me, at least.
One thing that's unclear: how many folks will end up downloading the beta and paying the new toll. The three million people who have already downloaded the beta will be able to download further updates for free, Microsoft says. And the browser-based Office 2007 preview, which is the simplest way to try out the upgrade, remains a freebie.
If you want to try out Office 2007 Beta 2.0 for free, see if you can get hold of a copy of the August 06 issue of PC Advisor; you'll find the program on the cover disc.