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February 15, 1999


By CBR Staff Writer

By Rachel Chalmers

On Monday February 15, more than one hundred users of non- Microsoft operating systems, their friends and supporters and a mob of journalists walked from the car park of the local Denny’s to the Microsoft campus in Foster City, California. Dubbed Windows Refund Day, the march was part grassroots consumer movement and part media prank. For the core group, the mission was to exercise their right to reject Microsoft’s End User License Agreement (EULA), a contract which ships with every personal computer that is sold pre-installed with the Windows operating systems. The demonstrators – not part of any official body, they describe themselves as an ad-hocracy – say they do not accept the EULA. They say they booted their machines from alternative operating systems such as Linux, FreeBSD and BeOS, and that they reformatted their hard drives immediately. They never used Windows and as such they believe they are entitled to a refund for the price of the Windows user license. Brandishing penguins (the Linux 2.0 mascot), demons (the mascot for BSD), red hats (one Linux company is called Red Hat Inc) and the American flag, the users marched to Microsoft to ask for their money back. With them was Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a paper which helped mobilize the open source software movement. Because Raymond recently featured in a comic strip parody of Star Wars, someone had brought along a brown Jedi robe for him to wear. Dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi he held up his hands and said: The source is strong in these ones! When the march arrived at Microsoft’s offices, a sign directed the Linux Event to the multi-storey carpark next door. The top floor of the carpark was already crowded with more media, who leaned over the parapet taking pictures. May the source be with you! Raymond called up to them. A lone voice replied: And also with you! The marchers climbed through the carpark to be greeted by dozens of cameras, a small lemonade stand and a banner which read: Microsoft welcomes the Linux community! The long march in the hot sun had left the demonstrators thirsty, and because Microsoft apparently underestimated how many would turn up, supplies of lemonade were quickly exhausted. There were plenty of copies of Microsoft’s official statement, however. It read in part: We understand that part of your purpose today is to request a refund for the version of the Windows operating system that came preinstalled on your personal computer. The license agreement that accompanies the version of Windows preinstalled on new PCs clearly states that if users for some reason choose not to agree to that license, they should contact their PC maker to address this issue. In other words, Microsoft’s position has not changed since its first official comment on the Refund movement, when company spokesperson, Adam Sohn dismissed it as a tempest in a teapot (CI No 3,581). When Charles Earnest, the unfortunate Microsoftie charged with handing out this unsatisfying statement, was overwhelmed by questions, he retreated and sent out the company’s big gun: Rob Bennett, a group product manager for Windows. A cool and collected Bennett reiterated the party line: users who do not accept the terms of the EULA should contact the manufacturer of their PC. Bennett would not divulge whether or not Microsoft would reimburse any PC manufacturers who offered refunds, saying the terms of Microsoft’s contracts with PC manufacturers are under NDA. Like Sohn before him, Bennett explained that the reason it is virtually impossible to purchase an Intel-based laptop without Windows pre-installed is because OEMs have concluded that there is no consumer demand for such a beast.

Not passing the buck

He was immediately shouted down by consumers demanding exactly that. We’re not passing the buck, Bennett concluded. The demonstrators were then herded off the carpark roof. So this is how Microsoft welcomes the Linux community? You’ve got to understand we have building management, said a representative of Microsoft’s PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, if it weren’t for that, we’d happily stay out here all day. After their attempts to enter Microsoft’s offices, rather than its car park, were rebuffed, the demonstrators stood in the courtyard and pointed and laughed at Microsoft in unison. Refund Day organizer Rick Moen, an independent networking contractor who uses Linux and FreeBSD in his work, said he was disappointed that Microsoft hadn’t handed out refund checks on the spot. It would have been great publicity for them, he explained. But he feels the groundswell of support for Windows Refund Day has caught the Redmond software giant on the back foot. We have a message that’s very simple and clear and that people instinctively respond to as a fair one, Moen said, that makes Microsoft very nervous. While Eric Raymond was outspoken in his calls for a class action lawsuit, and Moen admits that hungry lawyers have been in touch, Moen’s own preference for the next act is a series of small claims – for Microsoft, the legal and PR equivalent of the death of a thousand cuts. But even if a grassroots consumer movement could force Microsoft to back down on the EULA, such an achievement is unlikely to affect corporate users. Refund movement organizers admit that PC manufacturers are already willing to ship raw machines, without pre-loaded Windows, for orders in the region of several hundred boxes. In the end it is only small businesses and consumers – Microsoft’s traditional constituency – who, in the words of Refund Day organizer Nick Moffit: find themselves carrying the burden of an operating system they don’t want. That might yet change. VA Research Linux Systems Inc, whose president and CEO Larry Augustin and director of marketing Chris DiBona were both prominent members of the march, claims to have found a source for raw laptops. VA promises to ship them with Linux and without Windows in two or three months. á

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