Called Student Advantage, Microsoft's new program for schools begins December 1. In an interview, Microsoft VP of worldwide public sector education Anthony Salcito said more than 35,000 educational institutions will be eligible from day one. The program is about helping students to succeed in school and gain skills for an evolving workplace, he said.
Office's importance to that evolving workplace is described in IDC's study. By dissecting 14.6 million job postings from earlier this year, the research firm identified the 20 most commonly demanded skills in today's workforce.
[ Can Microsoft win with Office for iPad? Read Microsoft Office For iPad Faces Many Challenges. ]
Microsoft Office ranked third overall, after communication skills and attention to detail. Individual applications PowerPoint and Word ranked eleventh and twelfth, respectively.
Microsoft's productivity titles were the only software products to appear in IDC's list. Among sought-after skills, Office proficiency was also one of the few to involve concrete and clear expectations; many of the other most-requested job requirements, such as "work ethic," are comparatively hazy and abstract.
The white paper also examined skills necessary for tomorrow, using U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics to identify 60 high-earning occupations that IDC said will account for 11.5 million hires, or 28% of all job growth, by 2020. The jobs include positions in nursing and medical support, sales and marketing, education and instruction, computer programming and office management.
IDC said communication, integration and presentation skills -- Microsoft Office's forte, in other words -- will be required by 39% of the fastest-growing, highest-paying jobs, and that Microsoft Office is required explicitly for 15% of high-growth, high-salary positions.
Microsoft trumpeted Office's business-world stature in a statement, pointing out not only IDC's study, but also that Student Advantage gives students access to the same productivity tools used by Fortune 500 companies.
Student Advantage builds on an existing Office 365 Education program, initiated in 2012, that already makes many of Microsoft's cloud services available to students for free. Salcito said the program has 110 million users worldwide.
With the new program, students are no longer limited to the cloud. They can download the full Office software suite locally on up to five devices, giving them offline access and full feature sets that weren't available under the existing program.
Salcito pointed out that students will be able to download Office 365 applications not only on their computers at school but also on a computer at home, allowing them to work on projects no matter where they are.
He also said Office is "more than a traditional standalone" product, noting that its cloud-oriented nature allows students to collaborate, and classrooms to standardize projects and instruction around resources such as Lync or SharePoint. This benefits students immediately, Salcito said, and reflects a lot of ways businesses work and thus equips students to compete for jobs.
The program could also insulate Office from competing platforms. The software is every bit as ubiquitous as IDC stats attest, and Microsoft has appeared largely successful in translating its traditional standalone licensing model to Office 365's subscription-based plan. Microsoft COO Kevin Turner said at a financial analysts' meeting in September that Office 365 was on track for $1.5 billion in annual revenue, a 50% improvement from earlier in the year, and that it would "blow through" that mark in 2014.
Nonetheless, as user preference has shifted toward mobile devices and the cloud, Microsoft has failed to immediately seize opportunities, allowing competitors such as Apple's iWork and Google's Google Apps to carve out niches.
Thanks to Student Advantage, universities will be incentivized to use Office, which should ensure that students remain well acquainted with the software even as new competitors rise up. The program also means that Office for the iPad, whenever it finally arrives, should enjoy healthy adoption among iPad-toting students. Many of them might have opted for Apple's free iWork rather than paying whatever price Microsoft ultimately asks, but with Student Advantage providing the app to many young people at no cost, the story could be much different.