Microsoft jumps ahead of Apple with big back-to-school promo

Samsung Series 9

Microsoft can't wait for the Class of 2011 to graduate before offering a sweet back-to-school Windows PC deal for the next group of students. Perhaps somebody decided to get in front of Apple's yearly Mac promotion offering free iPods to its customers. Either way, the dueling promos, assuming Apple's comes as expected, will be much bigger than the giveaways. The promotions represent a showdown of younger consumers' digital lifestyles around gaming.

"Starting May 22nd for a limited time, we are bringing students a very special offer. When students buy a Windows 7 PC over $699, they will receive a free Xbox 360," blogs Microsoft's Kristina Libby. That's the 4GB model, which retails for $199.99.

May 22nd would likely put Microsoft's promo ahead of Apple's (There still is chance to announce and start over the next two days). The Mac maker typically announces its back-to-school deal in late May or early June. It was May 25th last year. Students got an 8G iPod touch, worth $199, for free (well, they paid up front and received a rebate).

Not surprisingly, Microsoft's deal requires an .edu email address for online purchases or student ID for its retail stores or participating partners like Best Buy. Libby explains: "You can buy any kind of PC, although we recommend a few specifically for students like the HP Pavillion DM4 (a great entertainment system on the go), the Dell Inspiron 14r (a stylish powerful 14-inch PC), and the Samsung Series 9 (a computer that has been described as looking like it is about to rocket off the runway)."

Microsoft has been aggressively promoting the Series 9. I counted nine -- hehe, how poetic -- on display during a recent visit to Microsoft Store San Diego. The photo above is one of the display models. Microsoft has good reasons to push the Samsung Series 9. It's about the same dimensions as Apple's popular 13.3-inch MacBook Air, and it's priced where Microsoft wants Windows laptops to be -- above $1,000, for sexy and powerful machines. The average selling price for Windows laptops at U.S. retail was $505 in March, compared to $1,448 for Mac notebooks, according to NPD.

Microsoft's offer is for a "limited time," which means through September 3rd, or "while supplies last." What? Is Microsoft going to sell out of 4GB Xbox 360s? If it is "while supplies last" and not early September, the end date will be a corporate decision.

So how will Microsoft's back-to-school deal compare to Apple's? For starters, assuming Apple keeps the same deal as previous years, the Windows PC promo will cost less. The cheapest Mac notebook starts at $999 (unless purchased through educational channel and the promo applying there). So to get that free iPod, the student would spend $300 more -- or choose a free Xbox with a $699 (or more) laptop. The cheapest Mac desktop costs even more -- $1,199.

Price isn't the only difference. There's one relating to digital lifestyle -- that assumes final purchase comes down to the freebee and not something more important like computer cost or perceived benefits. Xbox and iPod touch are both entertainment devices, with gaming being but one capability. There are music and movie options for both devices, too. Does the student want to game and go or have that big-screen experience in his or her tiny (cough, cough) dorm room? One entertainment experience is tethered, the other isn't. Another difference is social: Does the student want to game with others (Microsoft game console, either in the same room or online via Xbox Live) or solo on iPod touch (venting social frustrations playing Angry birds)? Decisions, decisions.

Since Apple hasn't announced its back-to-school deal, my criticism is solely for the Xbox promo. I don't think Microsoft's deal is sweet enough. There should be an offer that includes Kinect. What better way to promote the game controller than generating more excitement among students, who also are great candidates for exploring new natural user interface capabilities beyond gaming. There should be a Kinect-for-free option or one with Xbox 360 and Kinect bundle. The 4GB Xbox 360 and Kinect bundle sells for $299.99, just a hundred bucks more than the console alone. How about offering that bundle for students spending $799 -- or two hundred bucks less than the cheapest Mac laptop?

So, students, what do you think of Microsoft's back-to-school promo? Please respond in comments.

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