Open Text cuts school boards some slack

Open Text Corp. will offer special pricing deals on its FirstClass collaboration and communications software to schools in two Canadian provinces through agreements with the Educational Resource Acquisition Consortium (ERAC) in British Columbia and with Manitoba Education Research and Learning Information Networks.

About 70 per cent of FirstClass sales are to education customers, said John Myers, general manager of the FirstClass division at Toronto-based Open Text. One reason is lower cost of ownership, Myers said, with volume pricing deals making FirstClass especially attractive to larger school districts. By giving smaller school districts access to the sort of volume discounts that have been available only to their larger counterparts, the new deals will help boost the software’s appeal to smaller districts, he said.

Open Text announced the deal with ERAC late last week, saying it was negotiated because of growing demand for the FirstClass software among British Columbia schools. Twenty-two of the province’s 60 school districts use the software, Myers said, and five of those are new customers in the past year.

Mac Petrie, executive director of ERAC, said his organization’s focus is on putting together purchasing deals for software and video materials for its 56 member districts. ERAC pursued the pricing arrangement because a number of member school districts indicated an interest in a pricing deal on FirstClass, he said.

Open Text will offer all ERAC’s members the volume discounts that the largest school districts enjoy, in exchange for ERAC helping promote the software to its members, said Myers. “Effectively it’s a consortium buy or a pooled buy.”

The deal with MERLIN in Manitoba is expected to be announced formally this week, but information has already been posted on MERLIN’s Web site, indicating that school districts in the province can buy FirstClass at special prices through Orion Software Systems Ltd., a London, Ont.-based reseller.

Despite the two announcements in a short period, “I couldn’t necessarily say this represents a trend,” Myers said. But he added that more than half of Ontario’s school districts use FirstClass, about half of those in Newfoundland and Labrador use it and districts in the Yukon and Northwest Territories use it “almost exclusively.”

Though the software is not designed explicitly for education use, Myers said, three key factors besides lower cost contribute to its popularity in education. Open Text has a cross-platform strategy that includes supporting the Windows, Mac OS and Linux operating systems equally – new releases come out simultaneously for all three, said Myers. Open Text also maintains support for older versions of the operating systems, such as Windows 98, which is important to schools that often have older PCs. Lastly, the software is network-based, meaning users can move from one PC to another and still use it.

FirstClass’s popularity in the education market dates back to the first customer to buy the software: the Scarborough Board of Education, since it amalgamated into Toronto’s school board in 1998.

Petrie said British Columbia schools use FirstClass widely for e-mail, and some use its unified communications features to handle voice and fax communications as well. Some have extended its use to students, he said.

Myers said use by students is a trend among FirstClass education customers as the availability of computers in schools increasing. A couple of years ago, he said, the state of Maine issued laptops to all its Grade 7 and 8 students and set up FirstClass accounts for all of them, and now Open Text is talking to the state about extending that deal to higher grades.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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