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Microsoft's closed shop

Windows Marketplace, Microsoft's online shop allowing people to download Vista and Office, is a great idea. So why can't we use it?

This article appears in the May 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents.

The fireworks are over, Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 have launched. Those of us who have taken the plunge and dug deep into our pockets have bought the software in one of two ways – either in person from a retailer such as PC World, or by using one of many online merchants. And that's the way it's always been with Microsoft products.

All that looked set to change, however, when Microsoft announced in January that its software would be available online 24 hours a day. A few clicks of the mouse and away goes the download. Half an hour or so on a good broadband connection and Vista Ultimate, Office 2007 or whatever else you choose is nestling in a folder on your hard drive – isn't that great? Well, no, not if you happen to live anywhere other than the US.

In its wisdom, Microsoft hasn't seen fit to make the service available to those of us who inhabit the rest of the world.

Selective service

The company has developed a system known as Windows Marketplace. In essence this is an online shop where you can buy software and hardware from companies that have partnered with Microsoft. To buy their products you need to have registered with a Microsoft Live ID.

It works like this:

First, visit the Windows Marketplace site at WindowsMarketplace.com and sign up for a Windows Live ID. This creates what Microsoft calls a 'Digital Locker' – a private online storage area in which your personal details are held securely by Microsoft.

Next you download and install a Digital Locker assistant. This is a small software tool that sits on your desktop and enables you to download and install purchases, pause and restart downloads, and will even make a backup CD of your software.

Once you've done that, sign into the Windows Marketplace and browse the software and hardware products available from companies such as HP, Symantec, Sony, Cisco, Intuit and many more, together with a full-range of Microsoft offerings.

Add items to your shopping basket in the usual way then, when you're ready, go to the checkout. Your Digital Locker passes your personal details to the companies concerned via secure Microsoft servers and the software is placed in your locker for download, along with the relevant serial keys. Hardware is shipped to your home address.

You can log in to your locker at any time and retrieve software and installation keys, or even add details of software you've purchased elsewhere – complete with the address of the supplier's download page and purchase information. This gives a perfect, secure record of items you've bought online.

Anyone serving?

What a good idea. For the first time there's a way to keep details of your online purchases in one safe place – and there's no chance of losing precious installation keys or download locations when you format your hard drive. Everything's backed up on a Microsoft server, with your privacy guaranteed.

Your credit card details and other personal information are passed to third-parties by Microsoft only when you consent to that happening – when you buy something from a company which is in the Windows Marketplace scheme.

But the fly in the ointment is that you can't use the system unless you live in the US. At the time of writing, Microsoft was unable to tell us when the system will be available in the UK. The best we can offer you is this – a statement placed by the company on the Marketplace website:

"The digital locker is currently only available for purchases in countries listed in the drop-down menu. While we are working towards the international expansion of the digital locker, please let us know where you would like to have the digital locker available by sending us your suggestions via our customer feedback page."

So there you have it; the world's largest software company finally gets its act together to offer its products online – something most self-respecting businesses have been doing for years – and fails to understand that there are hundreds of millions of people here in Europe who buy software. If a concept is worth launching to the US market, it's worth launching globally.

And if the feedback we're getting from our online forum members is anything to go by, Vista is going to struggle to get its market share. So my advice to the Microsoft marketing department is this: stop thinking that the world begins and ends in America and realise that a euro in the bank is every bit as vital to your company's continued success as a dollar.

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