Looking the gift horse in the mouth

I believe, by now, everyone has heard of Microsoft's attempt to bribe bloggers by giving them free laptops running Vista. More amusing is that, in response to the publicity they received when they were caught out, they have now asked for these machines to be returned, thereby making Microsoft look all the more stupid as well as foolish. But out of this comedy of errors, it is worth briefly considering the history of computing from the perspective of free computers.

At one time, back in the late '70s, and early '80s, it was often, in fact, common, for computer companies to give free hardware out to be reviewed. Often, the cost of their (then) new toys were so great that without seeding the reviewer market, there would be few who could afford to buy them for a review. This is especially true considering that most reviewers received maybe at most a few hundred dollars compensation for a particularly good article, while most equipment back then ranged between $1-20K in price.

For some, writing reviews in exchange for free hardware had become a professional goal in itself, including for a (in my opinion) particularly mediocre science fiction writer. The general agreement, however, in all these cases, was that the gift must be disclosed, particularly in the article that was written. Those that received such gifts, as well as those providing them, understood this basic ethical premise explicitly.

While I generally never wrote reviews, occasionally I received evaluation or donated hardware for other valid reasons. For example, the FSF recently received a generous donation of a replacement machine for their shell server, fencepost. This they disclose very publicly. Very recently, my own project received a nice little PPC hardware donation from Genesi (who supports the PPC port of Gentoo among other activities) for use in our work on Telecenters for emerging communities, which I have the first opportunity to mention today. These are donations that are acknowledged and public. Those who perform reviews do much the same.

What Microsoft chose to do is break yet another important ethical code of conduct and in doing so not only harmed those it tried to entice with free gifts, but society as a whole through their anti-social behavior.


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