MERLIN conjures up special pricing for FirstClass software

Open Text has entered into a software licensing agreement with the Province of Manitoba, following on the heels of a similar agreement with the Province of British Columbia.

The agreement will make its FirstClass collaboration and communications software available to Manitoba’s 37 public school divisions at a standard negotiated price. However, it’s up to individual school divisions if they want to purchase the software.

The agreement was reached with the Manitoba Education Research and Learning Information Networks. MERLIN negotiates pricing on software and hardware from different vendors on a province-wide basis, says Cathy Ackland, MERLIN’s acting chief operating operator. “It helps ensure consistency in hardware and software products and it provides economies of scale for the smaller school divisions.”

In addition to the Open Text deal, it secured a standing offer from Computer Associates, negotiated better pricing with SynerVoice Technologies, and received discounts from MacAfee.

While MERLIN is part of the provincial government, it doesn’t have a mandated clientele. “It’s optional for [school divisions] to deal with MERLIN,” said Ackland. “If they can find a better deal outside of MERLIN they’re free to look to any other vendor that they wish.”

MERLIN also provides central hosting services, firewall services, bandwidth management and UPS administration.

In the software licensing world, price is based on volume. So a school division with 2,000 students and 200 teachers is going to pay more than an urban school district 10 times its size, said John Myers, general manager of Open Text’s FirstClass Division. These types of agreements provide economies of scale that help smaller school divisions be more cost-effective.

FirstClass has been sold to the education market for about 15 years, primarily to teachers. It’s a platform-independent software solution designed for academic organizations that features e-mail, calendaring, instant messaging, collaboration and document sharing, Web publishing and unified messaging.

Myers believes the heightened interest in solutions like FirstClass stems from the penetration of computers and the Internet at home and in the community.

“The school districts have realized these kids are very connected,” said Myers. “They go home and they’re using all these tools for e-mail and instant messaging and digital photos and music.”

School divisions want similar types of tools in the education environment, he says, but at the same time need to maintain a certain level of control. The idea behind FirstClass is that school divisions can decide how “open” they want to make the system. In some cases, students can e-mail any other student in the division but don’t have access to the Internet. In other cases, they’ll have access to the Net, but there are safeguards in place to ensure outside intruders can’t get in.

With FirstClass, there is no such thing as an anonymous user, said Myers. “There is no [email protected],” he said. Instead, all users are authenticated and there is a record of communications.

“We know who e-mailed what to whom,” he said. If there’s any question about inappropriate content it can be quickly traced back to the originator. “The kids catch on very fast that this isn’t hotmail – they can’t send abusive messages to a peer and expect that’s not going to come back.”

As a result of the licensing agreement, Open Text has already had one purchase in Manitoba, and is in discussions with several others. In B.C., three new school divisions have come on board, saud Myers, and existing customers have used the opportunity to buy more student licences at a lower price.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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