Microsoft Corp. has earned a failing grade from school districts in Oregon and Washington, where administrators say the company's licensing tactics could force a rapid move to open-source software.
Educators in both states received letters from the company in March giving them 60 days to perform extensive audits in search of unlicensed software, or risk facing potentially costly penalties. The letter came with a marketing brochure touting the company's latest volume-licensing agreements.
The letter's tone, which some recipients felt was threatening, elicited a strong response from school administrators. They complained loudly, and some even threatened to strip their schools' PCs of Microsoft products. The company quickly backed down on its strict deadlines, and executives now say the whole thing was a misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, the experience has prompted many school administrators to seriously consider switching from Microsoft's operating systems and office applications to free or low-cost alternatives such as Linux and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice.
Microsoft's letter arrived in 24 school districts in Oregon and Washington, asking for audits to ensure compliance with software licensing agreements. It specified 261 Microsoft products that schools should inventory on each machine.
School administrators acknowledged that Microsoft was well within its rights to ask for a software audit. However, the company's request that the schools complete the task in 60 days -- and its seeming push toward a volume-licensing scheme that few schools could afford -- left many with hard feelings toward the company.
Simply complying with Microsoft's deadline would impose a major financial burden on some districts, said Scott Robinson, chief technology officer of Portland Public Schools in Oregon.
The letter arrived at the busiest time of the year for the schools, as they were gearing up for the close of the spring semester. And because the public schools in Portland have 25,000 computers spread across 100 buildings, completing the audit on time would have required hiring extra personnel at a total cost of around $300,000, Robinson said. Microsoft's licensing agreements include the offer to send out auditors, but the audit cost would fall to the district if company auditors uncovered any undocumented software, he said.
Microsoft may be accustomed to businesses that quickly comply with its audit requests, but schools simply aren't run the same way, said another administrator.
"Schools don't operate like businesses, with everything managed and centrally distributed," said Steve Carlson, associate superintendent of information and technology for Beaverton School District in Oregon. "A lot of computers come from recyclers or corporate donors, such as Intel, or from individual donations. These machines seldom come with software documentation or licenses."
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