Non-Windows Users of the World, Unite!

Microsoft Windows Refund Day is just around the corner

July 4, 1776. July 14, 1789. Nov. 6, 1917. And now, Feb. 15, 1999?Some revolutions begin quietly-think one woman on a bus. Others begin with hundreds of Frenchmen storming the Bastille. And some begin with one Australian trying to get a refund from a computer company-and expand all the way to Orange County.This latest uprising started with Australian resident Geoffrey Bennett. A dedicated Linux user (one of the few alternative operating systems available if you hate Microsoft Windows), Bennett wanted to buy a notebook computer with the Linux operating system. But when he purchased a Toshiba notebook, the retailer told him that the computer came with Windows installed.Not one to give up easily, Bennett says he noticed a loophole in his End User License Agreement for Windows, which stated that if he did not accept the terms of the agreement, he should contact the manufacturer for instructions on returning the software for a refund. Bennett removed Windows from his laptop, installed Linux, and contacted Toshiba in Adelaide.Toshiba professed itself baffled by the concept that anyone would want to return their operating system, and in a series of e-mails, Bennett argued back and forth with them that he did not want Windows on his computer, had never used it, and didn't see why he should have to pay for it. Finally, more than three months after Bennett purchased his laptop, Toshiba sent him a check for $110 Australian. Success! In August, Bennett posted the saga online (www.netcraft.com.au/geoffrey/toshiba.html), complete with a scanned copy of the check. Several weeks ago, the site came to the attention of Linux users, and the online world issued a call to arms.What is now being called "Windows Refund Day" is scheduled for Feb. 15. The Windows Refund Center site (www.linuxmall.com/refund), which was founded on Jan. 19, is coordinating efforts among the world's Linux users so they can receive refunds from Microsoft for their unused, preloaded copies of Windows. Ultimately, organizers say, they're hoping to force a change in the way Microsoft does business with computer manufacturers, making it easier for alternative operating systems such as Linux to get a foothold in the Windows-dominated PC market. Several observers have suggested that the grassroots movement could lead to a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft.One of those is Irvine resident Deirdre Saoirse. A systems administrator with an automobile company in Torrance and a member of the Orange County Linux Users Group, Saoirse is helping coordinate protest efforts in Orange County for Windows Refund Day (see her Web site at www.deirdre.org/rebellion.html). The group plans to demonstrate outside Microsoft's Irvine office on Feb. 15, where it will distribute fliers and copies of Linux to passersby. The OC protest is an offshoot of a similar protest planned by the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group, which is organizing those seeking refunds for their unused copies of Windows to apply for those refunds in person at Microsoft's Bay Area office. Saoirse said she doesn't yet know if a similar refund drive will be held in OC."I think the point of the demonstration is to raise awareness of the conditions under which someone might be eligible for a refund, such as if they never used Windows," Saoirse said. In addition to proposed demonstrations in northern and Southern California, the Windows Refund Center is urging unwilling Windows users to make Feb. 15 the day they write in requesting refunds.The OC protest was news to Microsoft's Irvine office. "Oh, really?" the receptionist asked when I told her the barbarians were almost at the gates. A pause. "What was that date again?""Oh, don't bother," Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn said cheerily when I told him I was writing a story on Windows Refund Day. "It's a tempest in a teapot."Sohn argues that there are plenty of PC manufacturers who offer other operating systems besides Windows, and he characterized the movement as "a small group of folks who for a long time have been looking to raise the profile of the open-source movement." But numerous press and individual accounts have stated that it's very difficult to buy a laptop computer, in particular, at the retail level without Windows already installed. UCLA student David Chun conducted an informal survey last June, when, he says, he called a dozen PC manufacturers (including Gateway, Dell and NEC) and asked if they would sell him a computer without Windows pre-installed. According to Chun, none would; most cited existing contracts with Microsoft as the reason for their refusal. (The complete story can be found at www.essential.org/antitrust/ms/jun3survey.html.)Saoirse, for one, said she has been holding off on getting a laptop even though she needs one because she doesn't know how to get one without Windows. "I've seriously considered getting a laptop, but it doesn't seem like I would have any options," she said. "If the refund events keep going, I might feel more comfortable getting a laptop, but I've been doing without."The tale of a ragtag bunch of Linux users fighting the good fight against a corporate behemoth takes on a certain resonance, of course, because of the ongoing antitrust trial against Microsoft. Microsoft has been claiming all along that it does not hold a monopoly in the operating-system market and that it does not, therefore, use monopoly power to try to crush its competitors in other areas. (The case that precipitated the antitrust suit, of course, was Netscape's claim that Microsoft was using its operating-system dominance to destroy Netscape's Internet browser.)But if ordinary users have to turn themselves inside out over a period of months just to avoid paying for a copy of Windows they didn't want in the first place; if Saoirse has been avoiding buying a laptop because she can't find one that doesn't come with Windows; if a UCLA student can be told by IBM (the company that manufactures OS/2, one of the alternative operating systems cited by Sohn) that he cannot even get one of their computers without Windows pre-installed; if a simple tale of a $110 refund can spark a revolution online, then the Justice Department's beef looks awfully plausible, despite Sohn's attempts to dismiss the refund movement as a few publicity-hungry Linux users.Viva la revolucion!Revolt Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net

 
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