Microsoft beats Apple to back-to-school promo punch

Offers high school and college students Xbox with purchase of Windows PC

Microsoft will kick off a back-to-school promotion in the U.S. on Sunday with an offer of a free Xbox 360 game console to eligible students who purchase a Windows PC priced at $699 or higher.

The timing may not be coincidental, said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research. The last two years, Microsoft rival Apple launched its own back-to-school deals the last week of May.

"Good on them," said Gottheil. "This is a clever move for Microsoft. It may skew gender-wise toward males, but like Apple, [Microsoft is] identifying a potential market going forward and using their consumer-oriented product. College students are a game tribe."

Microsoft's promotion runs until Sept. 3, or as long as supplies last, said Microsoft in a press release and supporting blog post Thursday.

High school or college students with proof of status -- a student ID card or an email address that ends in .edu -- will receive a 4GB Xbox 360 video game console when they purchase a Windows PC for $699 or more.

Microsoft is pairing with some of its biggest partners -- Hewlett-Packard, Dell and retailer Best Buy -- on the deal.

According to Microsoft, students simply show their ID cards at Best Buy or at one of Microsoft's own retail outlets when they buy a Windows desktop or notebook. Microsoft currently has 11 stores in cities such as Atlanta, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Bellevue, Wash.

Online purchases can be made at hp.com and dell.com with an .edu email address.

Microsoft will be giving eligible students the $199 4GB Xbox 360, its lowest-priced game console.

Coincidental or not, that $199 is the same amount Apple returned to students during its last promotion.

In 2010, Apple started its student offer May 25, and gave rebates of up to $199 toward the purchase of an iPod Touch when students purchased a qualifying Mac notebook or desktop. The year before, Apple launched its back-to-school deal on May 27 with rebates of up to $229.

Although Microsoft may have beaten Apple to the promotional punch, Gottheil doesn't expect the latter to up its offer in response.

"The iPod Touch deal suits Apple well for a lot of reasons," Gottheil said. "It gets PC owners into iOS for one and it fits the college demographic. It's the right product with a Mac, especially if Apple launches a subscription music service, as seems likely."

Reports this week citing unnamed sources in the music industry have claimed that Apple has struck subscription licensing deals with three of the four major recording labels, driving speculation that Apple will launch a cloud-based music service as early as June 6, when it opens its annual developers conference.

Gottheil declined to predict which back-to-school offer will get the best results.

"Students are flexible, most of them could go either way," Gottheil said. "In fact, in some ways Apple is a little bit of a more mature market now. To students, it's no longer the 'other PC,' not when their parents are using iPhones and iPads."

Microsoft will post more details of the Windows-Xbox offer on its Web site; at the moment, that address redirects to the Thursday blog announcement.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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