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Windows license opens door for Linux refund

by Daniel P. Dern


(IDG) -- On February 15, 1999, computer users who didn't want the Microsoft operating system that came bundled with their notebook or desktop computer will ask for a refund.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, users are being urged to meet, bearing their original disks, manuals, and certificates of authenticity (and, if possible, the computer itself or printouts showing that Windows is no longer installed) at the Microsoft office in Foster City, CA, to ask for their refund.

Elsewhere, users of Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, and other operating systems are being urged to make this the day they write in for a refund.

The informal initiative, currently named Windows Refund Day, is the result of growing unhappiness among computer users. Finding themselves unable to buy computers from mainstream vendors with either an alternative or no operating system installed, and forced to pay the "Microsoft tax" for copies of Windows 95/98/NT they don't intend to use, a number of users have resorted, some successfully, to requesting a refund.

The rationale behind refund requests comes from language in the EULA (End-User License Agreement) in Microsoft Windows:

If you do not agree to the terms of this EULA, PC manufacturer and Microsoft are unwilling to license the software product to you. In such an event ... you should promptly contact PC manufacturer for instructions on a return of the unused product(s) for a refund.

The first reported "known Windows refund" dates back to a February, 1997 Usenet posting. In June, 1998, UCLA student David Chun posted a report detailing his phone calls to a dozen leading PC vendors asking whether he could buy a system without buying Microsoft Windows. None could allow him to do so.

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Australian gets $110 refund

The big noise, however, began early this week, in the wake of two messages Dave Farber forwarded to his IP (Interesting People) mailing list. The list reaches tens of thousands of people, and many of its posts -- presumably including these -- are then forwarded to additional lists.

The first message referred Farber to Australian user Geoffrey Bennett's Toshiba-Microsoft refund saga, chronicling how, after three months of voice-, snail- and e-mail, Bennett got a refund of AUS110.

The second, from journalist Brett Glass, pointed to Seattle-based Web developer Matt Jensen's Windows Refund Center.

Over at SlashDot.Org, the topic quickly garnered high visibility and generated considerable response.

"It's about time," says Slashdot Editor Rob Malda. "I've got an unopened Windows 95 and a Windows 98 sitting in a box in the corner. Consumers are taking this into their own hands. The manufacturers don't want to do it -- they have big contracts with Microsoft. They want to bundle this stuff because it benefits them financially. But it costs us money. Personally I'd rather choose where I spend my money than let my vendor choose for me ... Why should I be required to build my machine up from parts just to avoid the Microsoft Tax?"

How big a response has SlashDot.Org seen to this story? "Quite large," reports Malda. "Not record-setting, but it was the top story the day it was posted."

Windows Refund Center creator Matt Jenson says he was inspired to set up his own Windows Refund Center by postings at SlashDot and elsewhere. "I don't currently have a machine that qualifies [for the refund], but it seemed like such a cool idea when I read about it, and enough posts, that it demanded a space where people could organize."

Jenson also plans to produce a Windows Refund e-mail newsletter.

Signups at Jensen's site numbered about 80 the morning of Wednesday, January 20, and scaled to over 500 by 5 p.m. Twenty-four hours later, there were over 1,750 names on the list.

"I've gotten lots of e-mail from people saying 'This is a great idea, we should go for it,'" says Jenson.

Web-wize, quickly followed suit, and started up a section in its Open Directory of Windows Refunds.

Work on organizing the refund process proper has also begun to snowball. "It's fascinating how many people have come out of the woodwork who say, 'I've had to pay for MS Windows but have never needed it,'" states Don Marti, cofounder of Electric Lichen LLC., a San Francisco, CA-based Linux consulting company.

Marti is helping to get the Bay Area effort organized. He expects there will probably be a few hundred people. "It's not that huge a deal; they do know we're coming."

No-hassle refund?

Why head to Microsoft rather than to the computer vendors or stores?

"We don't have any big political aspirations with this ... but people who have tried to return Microsoft Windows to their vendors have found that the vendors say 'We have an agreement with Microsoft that prohibits this,'" explains Marti. Based on his conversations with other users, he sees that "it's really a three-way deal that the user is becoming party to, involving themselves, their PC manufacturer, and Microsoft. So, rather than go to every manufacturer and have them go to Microsoft, we think it's better to all go to Microsoft and establish a consistent refund for everyone."

"I don't think anyone is holding out for the full retail price of [the] shrink-wrapped OS," notes Marti. "We don't know exactly how much refund to expect. I think a ballpark for the refund wold be that of a packaged Linux distribution ... if you could get enough money back to go buy Red Hat or Caldera Linux, I would feel that was fair."

"We'd really like the ability to buy a system without bundled software we aren't going to use, or a known smooth refund path," adds Marti. I'd have no problem with getting a machine that still had Windows on it as long as I could blow it away and get my money back. If it was common knowledge among Linux and FreeBSD users that you could just [send] your CD and certificate of authenticity to Microsoft, and they'd give you a no-hassle refund, we would have accomplished something."

Passing the buck

One challenge in the effort to either purchase Microsoft OS-free computers from larger, established vendors and distributors or get rebates is that no one company is eager to take responsibility.

According to a Microsoft spokesperson contacted earlier this week, "If a user buys a PC from a PC manufacturer, then in this case the user is a customer of the manufacturer. The licensing agreement states that the user should contact the PC manufacturer for instructions on return of the unused product or products for a refund. This is Microsoft's official position."

On the other hand, a Toshiba spokesperson told LinuxWorld that "Basically, Toshiba does not sell any of its desktop or notebooks without an operating system... it's all sold as one package, and the software is part of that. It's not Toshiba's policy to give refunds. The user isn't paying for the software, it's bundled in with the entire package."

Consumer groups call for organized response

It is possible to buy a desktop computer without a Microsoft OS from one of dozens of smaller shops, such as Silicon Valley-based VA Research, which sells Linux-based systems. One notebook, distributed by Cambridge, MA's PCs For Everyone, also includes Linux. Estimates President Peter Goodman, "Probably about a third of our machines go out without any operating system preinstalled, and we've just started selling boxes with Red Hat Linux preinstalled."

But it's harder to get a Windows-free desktop workstation or a notebook computer from the established vendors or stores. And while it's possible to build or buy an alternative-OS desktop, getting the notebook computer you want without Windows is somewhere between difficult and impossible -- hence the growing move to get refunds for software users never wanted in the first place.

Consumer groups say the key lies with the larger manufacturers. "What we've been most concerned about is whether or not you can buy computers without Windows from the nationally branded companies like Compaq, Gateway, Dell, Toshiba, Packard-Bell, etcetera, who are the market leaders," states Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology. "These are the most important leaders ... they get the best prices, get the most presence."

"I think the [Windows Refund Project] is a great thing," says Love, but he claims that for a significant effect to be felt the United States government needs to revisit its 1995 Microsoft Consent Decree. "They should put pressure on the OEMs, who are part of the deal. But ultimately, the government should step in and fix this problem. I say that because what they did in 1995 didn't work. It is broke, fix it. They have to go back to the basics and fix it, and it also has to cover Windows NT and Microsoft Office."

Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation, Washington, DC, agrees. "It is critical for people to organize and react against the abuse of market power. This is a political reaction, as clear evidence that the economic market is not working. Whenever you have to discipline an economic power, it's a demonstration of the failure of market forces."

So, if you've bought a new computer that included a Microsoft operating system you didn't want, haven't used, and still have the paperwork for, get ready for the Ides of February, and Windows Refund Day.

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