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Hands-on with Microsoft's free Works's Ina Fried heads to a couple retail stores to check out Microsoft's ad-supported Works running on Sony laptops. The verdict: the ads aren't that obtrusive.

Intrigued to learn that Microsoft has been testing its ad-supported version of Microsoft Works here in the U.S., I wanted to see it for myself.

A Microsoft Office ad inside the main screen of Microsoft Works 9 SE. Ina Fried/CNET

After work on Friday, I headed to Costco and to Best Buy, both of which carried Sony laptops that included the product, known as Works SE (Sponsored Edition). As Microsoft said, the product carries largely "house ads" that pitch Microsoft products such as Office. The ads themselves are small, taking up just about a 2-inch square in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.

Clicking on the ad didn't appear to do anything either. Of course, this is largely a test of the technology. Microsoft has built into Works SE the ability to serve ads via the Internet, should it choose to do so.

I took a few pictures with my cell phone camera, which are included not for their photographic quality, but rather to give a better sense for the feel of the advertising.

As can be seen in the image below, the ad isn't what takes up the most space. It's the right-hand pane in general, something that I believe exists in non-SE flavors of Works as well. This was less of an issue on the 15-inch Sony laptop I was looking at than it might be on a smaller screen.

Inside a word-processing document, the advertisement is just a small one in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Ina Fried/CNET

Although the advertising makes Works free, for most of its users, Works is already seen as free software. Historically, most Works users got the standard version of the program when they bought a new PC, so they weren't "paying" for it separately.

What has changed is the dynamics between Microsoft and the computer maker. Instead of paying Microsoft a couple of bucks to load Works, PC makers in the trial are getting Works SE for free. The price difference may not seem like much, but margins on PCs these days are razor-thin. Computer makers already clutter up their desktops with icons for all kinds of crapware to squeeze out a few extra dollars.

In that context, I think it is probably wise that Microsoft is going with smallish ads. However, the company could certainly gain more value from the advertising by making the ads more dynamic and by targeting them based on a user's Live ID. It could go a step further and try to serve up context-specific ads by scanning the contents of the document, but this would doubtless raise privacy concerns and arguably produce ads no more relevant than by using user profiles.

Also of note, while most of Microsoft's testing is around letting computer makers bundle Works SE for free, the company has done some other trials in Poland in which the software was distributed on its own.