It's bad enough when Microsoft strong-arms other software vendors into submission as a means of thwarting competition. But when it engages in underhanded tactics to intimidate users in order to land a software deal, we have a very disturbing situation on our hands. And someone needs to have the guts to speak out about it.
Fortunately, someone has. Last week, Dale Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co, brought to my attention an alarming business practice that shows Microsoft at its shoddy and arrogant worst.
AWC was contacted several weeks ago by Janet Lawless, a software asset management engagement manager at Microsoft, who claimed that "a preliminary review of [AWC's software licensing] information indicates that your company may not be licensed properly". Lawless urged AWC to "understand that the potential inconsistency in licensing is an urgent matter and needs immediate attention". She wanted to send a consultant to AWC to conduct an inventory of its installed software.
Frantz was stunned. He says he always errs on the side of caution with respect to software licences. He does regular audits and maintains extensive records of purchases, licence keys and registration codes. Frantz had no doubt that he was 100 percent compliant. When he told Lawless that, she ratcheted up the threatening tone of her e-mail correspondence.
"Simply commenting on your licensing environment does not address our concerns in a tangible, proven manner," she wrote. "We continue to believe that Auto Warehousing may not be licensed properly. Since this is a compliance issue, I am obligated to notify an officer of Auto Warehousing of the situation and the significant risk your organization may be subject to by not resolving this situation in a timely manner."
At that point, Frantz got his corporate solicitor involved. The solicitor suggested that an olive branch be proffered to avoid legal action, so Frantz offered to send Lawless detailed records of all purchases of Microsoft software in the past five years. But Lawless blew that off as well. She seemed determined to get a consultant into the IT bowels of AWC.
"Thank you for your offer to send your purchase records to me," she wrote, "however our Software Asset Management (SAM) program is the only unbiased way to create an accurate baseline and resolve this matter."
That did it. Frantz informed Lawless that he wasn't going to waste any more time with her, and he left the matter with his solicitor. The solicitor, suspecting that Lawless' actions were part of an elaborate sales effort, basically told her to back off.
Indeed, according to Microsoft's Web site, the responsibility of someone with Lawless' title of "engagement manager" is to "perform as an integrated member of the account team, drive business development and closing of new services engagements in targeted accounts". So why was someone in a sales position leaning so hard on AWC about a supposed licensing compliance concern?
When I phoned Lawless to find out, she referred me to Microsoft's PR machine. The responses I got through that channel stressed that Microsoft's aim is to help customers navigate the complexities of software licensing and that one of the roles of engagement managers is to assist in that effort by informing customers of a potential licensing risk. I was told to attribute the responses to Lawless.
The fact is, if Microsoft really has reason to believe that a company is using unlicensed copies of its software, it sics the Business Software Alliance onto the company. It doesn't turn the matter over to one of its sales managers.
The folk at Microsoft should have done their homework. They would have realized that trying to intimidate Dale Frantz would be a fruitless effort. And what a rotten fruitless effort it was.
Don Tennant is editor in chief of US Computerworld