Here's a little riddle: have you ever tried to sell a PC without Windows pre-loaded? Apple dealers and other smart alecs, don't bother to answer.
If, though, you include yourself among the 90 per cent of PC dealers whose machines come ready installed with Windows, don't be too surprised if some of your customers soon start demanding a refund.
Early February is the month identified by lobby group the Windows Refund Centre for supporters to blitz their PC suppliers with demands for reimbursement. The idea is simple: a clause in Microsoft's licensing agreement stipulates that unless users accept terms not to violate the software or pirate it, then the licence is invalidated. But then, because most US licence agreements must legally provide an opt-out provision covering just such situations, Microsoft's licences generally add that users should return to their suppliers 'any unused products for a refund'.
The catch-22, of course, is that unless you want a PC that blinks at you but is more brain-dead than a lobotomised bouncer, there is little option other than to accept Microsoft's ultimatum. At least, that has been the situation up until now.
Upsetting matters is the free, Unix-like operating system Linux. Although there's no suggestion it could yet challenge the dominance of, say, NT, the fact that software companies such as Oracle, Sun and Sybase are porting their products to it means that at least it's a runner. That it comes in versions for all the main processor platforms only adds to its fast-growing popularity.
All of which brings us back to Refund Day. If you have, for example, an Intel PC and you want to run Linux, why should you be forced to pay for the Windows OS by default?
Giving a boost to the pro-Linux brigade is the tale of Geoffrey Bennett, an Australian who recently protested that - despite Microsoft's licensing refund clause - he had a real fight to get a bean in compensation. His notebook supplier Toshiba eventually capitulated and refunded him Aus$110 for the unused software. Since then, Bennett's case has become a Linux cause celebre and could form the basis of fresh action against Microsoft.
The Seattle software giant's interpretation of all this is, of course, somewhat different. It argues that OEMs are free to preload any operating system of their choice. If they choose Windows, it follows that anyone who opts to buy one of their machines will get the Microsoft OS as a fait accompli. Microsoft also posits that any matter of a refund is between users and their suppliers, anyway. This kind of talk won't resolve where the channel stands should Linux aficionados start demanding a refund.
PCs - like chocolates - come shrinkwrapped with the inevitable soft centres, even if the lack of choice isn't always to everyone's taste. As for consensus on flavour, that's best left to market forces.
Dave Evans is a freelance IT journalist.
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