The Microsoft Tax revisited

Rudyard Kipling retained the services of six honest serving men who taught him all he knew (What and Why, When and How and Where and Who). By contrast the Bobsey twins at Microsoft, Steve and Bill, were so clever that they managed to downsize these faithful old retainers—and renamed them while they were at it. Now they are just two: ignorance and inertia. With these, they mused, we will conqueror the world. A depressingly near monopolistic market share seems to prove them right; and why not? After all, to paraphrase Hillare Belloc: they have the Microsoft Tax and we do not.

They have the Microsoft Tax and we do not

The genesis of this article began when a colleague, who knew of my interest in, use and advocacy of GNU/Linux handed me a printout of a news item on the superb BBC website. It related the story of Dave Mitchell, in Sheffield, England, who purchased a Dell laptop with the express purpose of installing GNU/Linux on it. Of course, needless to say, Windows XP Home came preinstalled. Dave declined the ubiquitous EULA and took photographs of the whole process and then wrote to Dell to tell them what he had done and to request a refund of the hated Microsoft Tax.

Dear reader, it is my unalloyed pleasure to tell you that a swift response was forthcoming and a refund followed shortly afterwards. £55.23 to be precise. For reasons best known to themselves Dell described it “goodwill unspecified” though Dell officially denied that they have an official Windows Refund policy. As Dave himself observed, this was a refund from Dell, not Microsoft. I tried, but failed, to imagine Dell approaching Redmond for reimbursement. If only.

Now, this got me thinking. Whilst I have been an enthusiastic user of free software for a few years, it occurred to me that I too had been guilty of a certain degree of ignorance and inertia.

Alright, I had made the switch en masse from Windows to GNU/Linux across all my machines, but had I not bought a laptop a few years ago with the express intention of installing Linux on it? After testing the hardware with a representative selection of live CDs I took the plunge: first Fedora and then Mepis. It simply never occurred to me to do a Dave Mitchell. Doh!

That got me thinking further and I decided to do some digging to see what had been happening with the hated Microsoft Tax. So, here is a selection of stories from around the web detailing the experiences of people trying to extract a refund and not falling victim to either ignorance or inertia.

The historical genesis of the efforts to attack the tax seems to have been the launch of Windows Refund Day which itself grew out of the Windows refund movement in January 1999. The best thing about reading this story was the response of Microsoft. We’ve heard them all before: nothing to do with us guv, better speak to the computer retailer/OEM, you can buy one without an OS or with an alternative OS. My favourite? “Most customers choose Windows.” Choose? Did I miss something? Have dictionaries been banned? The last time I looked up the word it implied freedom, not a fait accomplait.

I am no expert in the commercial relationships between software companies and OEMs but clearly we are in murky waters here: I am sure that there is an unhealthily, symbiotic relationship between Microsoft and computer manufacturers which looks like a cartel to my untrained eyes, so when I read the logo that this or that computer manufacturer “recommends” Windows I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s like a shopkeeper emptying the till at gunpoint and claiming that he is in a commercial relationship with the robber.

It’s like a shopkeeper emptying the till at gunpoint and claiming that he is in a commercial relationship with the robber

Although Dave Mitchell’s story was not unique nor is it commonplace. I did quite a lot of researching to dredge up further examples of refund success stories. Several more are worth citing not merely to show that it can be done but more for examples of the Jesuitical weaseling and circumlocutions that the OEMs and Microsoft indulge in to evade the difficulties posed by refund requests. Another success story dating back to 1998 concerns Geoffrey Bennett in Australia. It is a story of endurance and perseverance ending in a refund of AUD$110. All the, usual by now, familiar reasons were given and Bennett was thrice refused before Toshiba relented and coughed up. If you really want to savour the moment you can see a photograph of the actual cheque. Five years later Steve Qualline got a US$199 refund for his Win XP licence in the Small Claims Court in California. It is very much a HOWTO, but a very funny one, and it prompted one user to suggest an alternative route to a refund involving some creative credit card tactics.

Here’s another example: In a story dating back to late 2003, Simon Newton, based in San Francisco, did the same as Dave Mitchell. The saga began on 19 November and finally ended with a refund on 15 December. Dell (again) this time tell him that OS is governed by an OEM licence but nevertheless “as a gesture of goodwill” they “refund” him US$77. Result. Dell did not require him to return his copy of the XP disk. As my knowledge of OEM licences is less than Bill Gates’ appreciation of the virtues of GNU/Linux I had to do some research on that too.

I came across a very succinct description of the [iniquitous evils of the OEM](( It really is something of a catch twenty two. If you don’t want to have to purchase a new licence when you change the motherboard you can circumvent this by buying a full retail version of Windows and I believe you can install it on multiple machines. Great, but if memory serves me correctly, the retail version is dearer than the OEM version—indeed, Linuxers trying to get refunds have been unable to establish a set value for the OEM version.

Want to change your computer case? You have to purchase another licence!

Want to change your computer case? You have to purchase another licence! Are they serious? Yes. Apparently, the OEM licence requires that the sticker be clearly placed on the case. Of course, I am assuming that noboby in their right mind is seriously going to do this. My disbelief is exceeded only by my shock at the sheer hubris of Microsoft. At least when Dick Turpin robbed people he had the decency to wear a mask and he didn’t pretend to be anything other than a Highwayman.

If this is insufficient to convince you that the the duplicitous unanimity that passes for a legitimate commercial relationship between Microsoft and OEMs is nothing less than extorting money for a product not required then point your browser to this page. It’s a long one but it will inform and amuse you no end. I can’t summarise it for you but perhaps I should give you a few highlights.

When “Scruffy” wrote to Acer asking for a refund the ensuing correspondence would have brought a smile to the face of Little Nell on her deathbed. You would have needed a heart of stone not to laugh. The first line of defense was that Windows was an integral part of the Acer notebook. By definition, if the OS is integral and it is removed or overwritten by any other OS and the computer is still perfectly functional, then, by definition, the original factory preinstalled Windows OS was not integral or else the computer would not function with any other OS.

It gets better though. Little Nell is off her deathbed now and doubled over with laughter. Not only was Windows preinstalled, it was activated! Activated? If that was the case then rejecting the EULA and demanding a refund becomes an empty ritual. It gets worse. Not only pre-installed but “used”. Used?. So Acer are admitting implicitly that they are charging full “as new” price for a secondhand product. These ad hoc responses are very revealing as they betray the untenable position of computer manufacturers and suggest that the people advising them on requests for refunds of the Microsoft Tax must be a committee consisting of Salvadore Dali, Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift. It’s that surreal.

What next? The firing squad for building your own PC?

To those who say that the solution is to purchase a computer sans an OS, Microsoft ramped up FUD by trying to put the squeeze on PCs being sold “naked” even going so far as to suggest benefits snooper-style inspectors to ensure compliance. I would put triple exclamation marks after this but I have used up my quota. What next? The firing squad for building your own PC? In practical terms, this is not really feasible and the bad publicity fallout would be considerable—but that they were even contemplating such a course of action at all leaves one almost speechless at their impudence.

Coming almost up to date, a French consumer group (UFC) has launched an action against Hewlett-Packard and two electronics retailers for bundling computers with pre-loaded software. According to Alain Spitzmuller, the legal affairs director for HP in France “the PC without an OS is not a product because it doesn’t work”. So, they will not sell it bare. In Australia they call that “third line forcing”. Whatever you call it it seems inconceivable that HP haven’t heard of Linux, in Spitzmuller’s own words, as a product that works. One disturbing outcome of this action has been that many major computer builders are now changing their licence conditions to remove all rights to refund software. A refund would only be forthcoming if the complete hardware were returned for a limited refund and at the customer’s expense.

In conclusion, refunds have been thin on the ground but they have acted as a catalyst for looking at the convoluted nature of EULAS, OEM licences and sundry evils. When I started using and promoting GNU/Linux, I thought, in my naive innocence, that I had it all down pat. How little I knew! I was, in fact, mired in a bog of ignorance. However, if you’re not going to build you own PC/laptop and you’ve done six impossible things before breakfast at Milliways restaurant why not round it all off with an demand for a Microsoft Tax refund. Good luck.


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