Come June 30, over 80 lakh college students all over India would have little choice but to use Microsoft Office 365 in their college computers, locked by a government contract that may well be more expensive than the use of an open source equivalent in the long run.

The decision by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) will limit engineering students to a particular product at a time when their exposure should be widened, say experts. It also forces college administrations to adopt one technology instead of giving them the flexibility to install whatever suits their students’ needs best, they said.

Efforts to contact Microsoft were unsuccessful until Sunday night.

In open source, the core of the technology is available without charge as free download. Open source requires no initial investment, with many vendors offering support and maintenance at half the price charged by proprietary software vendors.

The AICTE, which serves more than 11,500 technical colleges and institutes across the country, had awarded Microsoft a contract last year that let the AICTE implement the company’s cloud email and storage offering, which centralizes email storage and provides for a simpler and potentially less expensive solution.

A recent notification by the AICTE states that all institutes must compulsorily install and use Microsoft Office 365, a productivity suite, which has little to do with the functioning of the cloud-storage service.

There is no free, open-source cloud-based offering, and Microsoft’s product, priced at zero initial cost, fulfills that need. Dr. S.S. Mantha, Chairman, AICTE, announced, “Office 365 will enhance our day to day communication, collaboration, and monitoring of the colleges we oversee... This will help us promote and propagate innovation across all 11,500 institutions.”

The AICTE notification that announced the mandate says the project needs to be completed by June 30, 2013.

Open-source software such as Linux has become popular among college students in recent times as its zero-cost approach promotes inclusivity, with former President Abdul Kalam stating “In India, open source software will have to come and stay in a big way, for the benefit of our billion people.”

Addressing what he called a popular misconception about the availability of support for open-source installations, Raghavendra Selvan, an assistant professor at an engineering college in Bangalore, clarified, “Once you have installed such a product, there are companies that will charge you just for maintenance and support.” Red Hat is an example of a large enterprise that caters to just this need.

If the government would consider an open-source alternative, it wouldn’t be the first time. In early 2011, the state government of Kerala deployed an open-source enterprise-resource planning (ERP) package named Fedena to assist over 15,000 schools and 70 lakh students.

Mr. Selvan suggested the government could use the Fedena model, and added, “The office suite is not necessary. Using Office 365 would only limit students to Microsoft's perspective and stand in the way of serious open-source research in rural colleges,” he added.