The bully is a coward

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I was very short for my age until the 10th grade, when my growth hormones finally kicked in and I sprouted to average height. Being short through most of my childhood made me a prime target for bullies. People tried to console me with useless slogans like "good things come in small packages," but the least helpful thing they ever said was that bullies are the real cowards. That may be true, but it's not a concept you can easily digest when you're getting your butt kicked.

It makes perfect sense now, however, and can be illustrated by Microsoft's latest assault on some of its most vulnerable customers: school systems. Microsoft told the 24 largest school districts in Oregon and neighboring Washington to perform an audit and cough up licenses for all the Microsoft software installed on their PCs and Macintosh computers. The schools have no choice but to comply. If these school systems want to avoid the cost of an audit or the consequences that would follow if they can't locate licenses for every bit of Microsoft software, the company has an alternative deal. They can count up all their computers regardless of platform and agree to pay Microsoft $42 per machine every year from now on. As Steve Duin reported in The Oregonian, this amounts to a $500,000 annual bill for the Portland public school system, roughly the equivalent of 10 teaching positions.

Microsoft is picking on these school systems for a number of reasons. First and foremost, schools are the easiest targets. Microsoft knows it's virtually impossible for these schools to produce the licenses for every installed product. They don't have the resources to track all these software licenses and, until now, they didn't even have the incentive. To make matters worse, schools are poorly funded, so they accept donated computers from just about anyone. Few schools, if any, even attempt to account for the software that comes with the donated computers. Students and teachers routinely install software on these computers without considering the licensing issues. That doesn't make it right, but it's yet another reason schools are easy targets. Finally, assuming there's a school system out there that has all of its ducks in a row, Microsoft chose the worst time of year to demand an audit.

Microsoft is picking on some of these school systems because they're evaluating the possibility of abandoning Microsoft software for Linux and open-source software. If Microsoft can intimidate them into signing a yearly subscription agreement before they get a chance to experiment with Linux, Microsoft will have them locked into Windows before Linux gets a fair shake.

Microsoft is picking on these school systems because the consequences of failure are small. These schools could dump all their Microsoft software for Linux and open-source applications. Better to sacrifice one teaching position to hire a Linux guru than sacrifice 10 for a yearly Microsoft fee. But what has the company lost? If Microsoft had simply left these schools alone, they wouldn't have sent much money to Redmond for the next few years anyway.

Microsoft is picking on these schools because it's afraid of you. The company is greedy, but it can hardly expect to reverse its decline in revenue by solving software piracy in schools. Even if Microsoft wins a yearly contract from every school it attacks, it barely adds up to petty cash. Your company is the ultimate target. But you have real lawyers and real purchasing power to use as leverage. Microsoft won't go up against you until it has honed its audit strategy so that when your time comes, you'll simply give in and go along with it. These schools are test cases to refine that strategy.

But most of all, Microsoft is using audits as an intimidation tactic because it can no longer figure out how to produce compelling upgrades to its software. With nothing new of value to offer, Microsoft has to find a way to make you pay every year for the software you already own. That's going to be a tough sell, since the free alternatives like Linux, KDE, Gnome, OpenOffice, Evolution, Mozilla, Apache and countless similar packages are plenty good enough. Microsoft knows that, even if you don't.

So this bully is indeed a coward. But, ultimately, not without good reason.

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Hayward, Calif. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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