How to buy a Microsoft volume license on the cheap

There's an easy -- and completely legitimate -- way to work the system and qualify for volume licensing for only $28

Most people think of Microsoft volume licenses as the province of big companies -- as Microsoft's way of keeping the hoi polloi from buying some of its fancier products. VLs are expensive, cumbersome, and not for the faint of heart, the story goes. But that story's wrong. It turns out there's a trick that people in the know have been using for years to comply, quite precisely, with the rules and pick up any VL software they might want for a song.

I've already written about the way Microsoft has buried PowerPivot, "the best new feature to hit Excel in 20 years," according to "Mr. Excel" Bill Jelen. PowerPivot is freely available to anyone with a copy of Excel 2010, but Microsoft took PowerPivot out of almost all versions of Excel 2013 -- apparently as an incentive to force PowerPivot users to rent Office 360 E3 at $240 per year. Even Office 2013 Professional, with a $399 list price, doesn't include PowerPivot.

Jelen has a great take on the topic:

My friends, who create Excel, did not do this. They're engineers. They've created great products. I appreciate those products, you've seen me rave about those products. It's someone else, high up, who puts the packages together, who made what I believe to be the world's worst mistake... well, certainly in the top five. 

The volume licensing version of Excel 2013 has PowerPivot -- or more accurately, it will have PowerPivot on Feb. 27, when the corporate versions of Office 2013 ship. I've seen the VL version of Excel 2013 listed for as little as $173, but few individuals in pursuit of PowerPivot will have the wherewithal to qualify for a Microsoft volume license ... or will they?

Most people think of volume licensing as a high-volume deal, with a minimum of five copies required to get a VL contract. If you want VL Excel 2013, you have to buy five of them, right? At least, that's what I thought, until I went through Jelen's podcast. Jelen credits fellow MVP Ken Puls with discovering a loophole.

A friend of mine, also a Microsoft MVP, confirms that this loophole's been around for years, and it's commonly used by people who want to buy a VL Windows server product but don't need five copies of Windows, much less five copies of Windows Server. Here's how the trick works.

In order to qualify for a volume license, you don't need to buy five copies of the same piece of software. You only need to buy five copies of some software offered in the VL program.

Lemington Consulting, which works extensively with Access volume licenses, explains the details in its FAQ:

Is there a mininum number of licenses that must be purchased under a Volume License Agreement?

Yes. The minimum number of licenses required for a Volume License Agreement is five (5). However, the five licenses can be made up of any combination of products. Quantities of less than five can also be purchased economically by making up the additional license using an inexpensive "make up" product SKU.

Once the initial Volume License Agreement is in place, additional licenses can be added to the Agreement in quantities of less than five. For example, if a company purchases five Office 2010 Professional Plus licenses under a new agreement, three months later the same company can purchase one additional Office 2010 Professional Plus license under the same agreement. The minimum license number therefore only applies to the initial Volume License agreement.

One of the worst-kept secrets in VL cognoscenti circles: The Microsoft DVD Playback Pack for Windows Vista Business is (as you would imagine) quite cheap. I've seen it for as little as $7.

So if you really want PowerPivot, and aren't going to succumb to Microsoft's lofty Office 360 E3 rental fee, sign up for an official Microsoft Volume License, order four gratuitous copies of the Vista DVD Playback Pack ($28), and toss in a genuine VL Excel 2013 ($173). The whole thing will set you back $201, give or take taxes and shipping -- less than one year's rental -- and you'll end up with a completely valid volume license that you may be able to use to your advantage in the future.

Microsoft really needs to rethink Office 2013 licensing.

This story, "How to buy a Microsoft volume license on the cheap," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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