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Welcome to the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group

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[Back up the SVLUG Events page]

Windows Refund Day
Monday, February 15, 1999

All the Linux User Groups in the Bay Area participated in this event. It was coordinated by the CABAL (Consortium of All Bay Area Linux).

Linux and FreeBSD users from around the Bay Area marched on Microsoft's Bay Area sales office in Foster City to ask for refunds for their unused Windows operating systems. The Windows user license says that if you don't agree with the terms, you may return it to the vendor for a refund. After all the vendors had been tried persistently and all said to go to Microsoft, we did. Microsoft refused to give a refund too. We think a point has been made about a monopoly able to break the literal wording of the agreement it imposes upon all purchasers of PC hardware, whether they want to buy any Microsoft software or not.

Reports by SVLUG Members A Few of the Media Reports
John Beale (see below)
Marc Merlin
Windows Refund Day organiser Rick Moen (see below)

(Send reports to webmaster@svlug.org.)

Slashdot Linux Weekly News: "Linux in the News"
"Programmers demand freedom from Microsoft operating system", San Jose Mercury News, front page of the Silicon Valley/Technology section

[teaser animation] Report and photos by John Beale, SVLUG photographer
See the chronological list of John's photos or read the narrative below.

I went to the SF Bay Area refund event on Feb. 15th, 1999 in Foster City, CA. This event was a fun one and I'm glad to have participated. There was a lot of press there, I think at least three TV crews plus many print journalists, maybe thirty or more. I took over 70 film pictures and over 100 digital stills, plus some video. I have put a four-page summary of the film pictures telling the story here. Below, I have some thumbnail sheets from the DV camera, plus a few larger shots to give a flavor of the event. As far as the story goes, I'll let others tell it; but briefly, Microsoft set up a table with free lemonade and some soft drinks at the top of their parking structure. Also, a one-page statement to the "Linux Community" which is reprinted here. A Microsoft spokeperson gave some non-answers. [Rick Moen interjects: They pointedly ignored a prominent flyer distributed at the event with three salient Questions for the Man that we correctly anticipated that they would duck.] Several attempts to enter the Microsoft office were met with a locked-out elevator and locked (exit-only) stairwell. I thought the impromptu press conference in the elevator was a nice touch (the elevator that went to every floor, except #9 where the Microsoft office was :-). -jpb 2/15/99

Index #1 Index #2 Index #3

[t-shirt with Gandhi
There were many different Linux (and FreeBSD. etc.) t-shirts in evidence, as well as the free "We didn't want your operating system... [Tux image] This is what we want!" shirts that VA Research handed out.

[photo of tall Microsoft tower
The office building in Foster City, containing the Microsoft office on the ninth floor.

Chris di Bona giving a
TV interview
Chris gives an interview with one of the TV crews present.

Linux activists with a
flag on the lawn
The flag added a nice touch to the 150+ person, 1/2 mile procession from our staging area to the MS building. Remember, free software is as American as apple pie!

Large press conference
Several of the organizers gave a press conference on the top of the parking structure where signs indicated the "Linux event" was to take place. There were a lot of reporters there.

Eric and Chris in the
locked-out elevator
Eric Raymond and Chris DiBona press the elevator button for the 9th floor. (It was locked out.)

Photos by John Beale (beale@best.com)

Report by Rick Moen, Windows Refund Day organiser.
Excerpt from an interview in the December 26, 2002 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), by reporter Sam Varghese (full interview also available):

Q: Let's come to the Windows refund day in February 1999. Whose idea was it?

A: A young webmaster named Matt Jensen in Seattle announced his idea out of the blue, having been inspired by the success of Australian Geoff Bennett in extracting a refund from Toshiba Australia for the unwanted Microsoft OS included with his laptop computer. Geoff carefully read the OS's licence statement, and noted that he was actually specifically required to return the software for a refund (and forbidden to use it), if he didn't consent to the licence terms, which he did not. After a six-month epic display of mulishness, Toshiba Australia finally gave him a $A110 refund.

Hearing about this after the fact (and eventually about an American named Donna having done likewise with Canon Computer a year earlier), Matt put up a Web page urging that people bang on the desks of their respective hardware manufacturers (OEMs or Original Equipment Manufacturers) on February 15, 1999. (Someone named Chris Schoedel managed the refund feat a third time, about that time. We know of no other genuine cases.) This cause was then taken up on the Slashdot.org discussion site, which is where a number of other Linux activists (Linux Journal Technical Editor Don Marti, LinuxMall.com proprietor Mark Bolzern, and others) and I heard about it.

Q: What did it achieve?

A: A few things, but I'll get to that point presently. The key fact that became apparent to my circle of activists, early on, was that the event was ill-conceived. When we joined the planning effort, we found that Matt had no concept of how to organise a publicity event and shape the coverage: with no coordination, computer purchasers were to visit hardware vendors in obscurity and annoy them to probably no effect whatsoever and with no real event for the press to cover.

Further, he didn't anticipate one fairly obvious hazard: Microsoft Corporation was already starting its campaign to discredit users of non-Microsoft PC OSes such as Linux and BSD. It had tried repeatedly to portray purchase of "naked PCs" (ones with no preloaded operating system) as indicative of software bootlegging. After all, they'd suggest, obviously that PC is going to get a Microsoft OS installed after purchase, as nobody could possibly want anything else, so allowing purchase of computers without a mandatory Microsoft OS means supporting illegal software copying. (I realise that's a non sequitur, but it's what they said.)

The hazard was that some sharp-witted Microsoft publicist might have found some young fellow to interview, getting him to testify that he'd be seeking a refund for his OEM preload (and thank you very much for the cash) but then intended to keep on using it because, of course, what else is there? Thankfully, this never happened, but my activist circle after taking over planning of Windows Refund Day from Matt took considerable pains to prevent the charge from being credible, if it were tried.

In any event, the little-known fact about Windows Refund Day was that it was about 95 percent damage control: It was an effort to save Matt's event, which we didn't ask for and would never have launched at all on our own initiative, from becoming a public-relations disaster that would have inevitably, despite our having not been responsible for its creation, reflected primarily on us Linux users.

Having approximately $A110 of our PC purchases go towards the mandatory purchase of Microsoft software we have no use for whatsoever is really only a minor annoyance mostly when Microsoft then cites those involuntary purchases as proving their goods' popularity. The wary computer buyer can sometimes evade the "Microsoft tax" in most machine categories, with the notable exception (for the most part) of almost all x86 laptop computers. But we had been handed an event already heavily publicised, so we decided to make the most of it.

The first thing we did was change its focus from OEMs to Microsoft itself. Although the licence (the "EULA" or End-User Licence Agreement) stated that refunds should be sought from the OEMs, the three known success stories the only ones worldwide were exceptions to an otherwise grim picture of consistent industry-wide refusal to honour the EULA's terms, and had been wrenched from the OEMs in those cases by three extraordinarily determined and patient customers. So, we reasoned, since the OEMs were reneging and yet Microsoft was getting paid, it was fair to seek recourse from Microsoft.

The second thing we did was assess where and how to best hold those events. Matt Jensen belatedly realised that he'd accidentally scheduled Windows Refund Day for the USA national holiday Presidents' Day (commemorating the birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln), and in a panic spoke of the need to cancel the already heavily publicised event. We had to override him, finding the date to be (accidentally) perfect, because Microsoft Corporation would be open for office hours but most other businesses would not. Therefore, we could have heavy attendance from people on their day off, and still be able to visit open Microsoft facilities.

Centralised events in public at or near Microsoft Corporation offices had a great deal more publicity potential than would Matt's original bother-the-OEMs plan and in-person events did happen, garnishing a great deal of attention, in northern and southern California, New York City, New Zealand, and France. And thus, we managed to get across several messages quite clearly:

  1. There are vast numbers of people whose attitude to Microsoft software is "Thanks, but no thanks" because they have other OSes and software they much prefer.
  2. They're often obliged to buy it anyway, because of Microsoft's control of the OEMs.
  3. When push comes to shove, Microsoft Corporation ignores its customers' needs and literally hides from them.

This last was graphically demonstrated in the largest Windows Refund Day event, in Foster City, California (near Silicon Valley), which I organised: Microsoft sent executive Adam Sohn down to read a brief statement to the press, and then he and his assistant fled up into their nearby office tower and locked out the elevators so that members of the public and the press couldn't talk to them at all. This PR debacle for the Redmondians was captured for the international press, and the lesson was lost on no one.

And it was a great deal of harmless fun, to boot: we had hundreds of people show up for our march and visit to our Microsoft neighbours in Foster City, and even had a rock and roll band show up and perform on a flatbed lorry. At the end of the afternoon, we drove up to the (Linux-based) Internet cafe where I lived in San Francisco, and had a party catered by appreciative IT businesses, including about a pallet full of good beer. Not bad, for 95 percent damage control.

Q: Do ordinary people really care about such things?

A: Ordinary people have a vague sense that they're probably being taken for a ride by Microsoft Corporation policies, but can't often quite put their fingers on the specifics. Whereas departments are often a bit rabid on the subject: licensing is often uncontrolled and poses a serious risk of licence audits, except for the larger firms that buy 3-year site licences (which Microsoft is now trying to shorten to 18 months, by the way), in which case they pay for both the site licence cost and (redundantly) for the OEM preload copies. Including, often, for server machines that will run something else entirely: some of the demonstrators at our Foster City event were Microsoft's own customers, who resented having to pay for mandatory copies of Windows 98 on machines that were immediately overwritten with separately-purchased copies of Windows NT.

(Those are the people who I see getting quite livid about Microsoft Corporation practices. Ironically, that's where you find the real Microsoft haters, while we of the Linux community merely give Microsoft a friendly razzing from time to time, purely in a spirit of fun.)

But don't forget, too, that the prices of PCs have been falling. $A110 doesn't seem like much, until suddenly the price of PCs falls below $A500, as it has in the US. And at the same time, the prices of Microsoft offerings have actually risen. At some point, the percentage sent to Redmond starts being a problem.

Q: Are you involved in the forthcoming refund day (January 23 [2003])?

A: I am not, partly because I've been too busy with other things. Also, no refund initiative is going to succeed in any other than the publicity sense, as long as Microsoft continues to fully control the PC hardware OEMs.

Originally, Microsoft did this by offering favourable prices only to OEMs willing to pay a fixed fee to Redmond for each PC sold, regardless of whether it actually had Microsoft software on it. This situation established the tradition of refusing to not include a Microsoft OS, which has really never changed since.

The US Department of Justice ended that arrangement by getting Microsoft to agree that it constituted illegal restraint of trade, in the first of two "consent decrees". (A consent decree is where a monopolist agrees to cease certain behaviour for a specified number of years, and in exchange avoids being prosecuted and possibly dismembered for violating the antitrust laws.) So, instead, it offered better pricing to more-compliant OEMs, until that was in turn barred by the second consent decree.

That leaves (or so we are told) two puppet strings left: the smaller one is per-model-line agreements of the sort banned by the first consent decree (because they were banned only if applied company-wide). The larger one is Microsoft co-op marketing: favoured OEMs' advertising costs are very heavily subsidised by Microsoft Corporation, forming a very significant percentage of revenues of goods sold. No OEM is willing to do anything that might risk that cash flow, especially when that could erase dangerously thin hardware profit margins.

So, the organisers of the second Windows Refund Day cannot seriously expect to change any OEM preload policies as long as those fundamental facts persist, but it's quite possible that quite a lot of useful publicity can be generated, if it's done well.

The end of the preload monopoly (and consequently of the "Microsoft tax") is more likely to happen from purely economic forces. When PCs drop below $A400 and keep slowly declining, something has to give. If what gives way are Microsoft's own prices, then they themselves might be in trouble. What becomes of their employees' loyalty when their ever-important stock options turn into dot-com funny money? We live in interesting times, anyway.

Feedback to SVLUG webmasters.