The Gripe Line

SAN MATEO (06/05/2000) - Is Microsoft Corp.'s "medialess" Windows policy really aimed at curbing software piracy, as the company claims? Readers were virtually unanimous in the belief that piracy has little or nothing to do with it, but they had a variety of other theories as to just what the software giant's true motives are.

Few readers could understand how providing only "recovery image" solutions instead of full backup CDs would deter real pirates. "The people who want to 'steal' the software will still figure out a way to copy from one hard disk to another. So what does that leave? I am sure it is not enough revenue to offset all the bad will that Microsoft will generate. Remember what happened to Lotus Development Corp. when that company became so concerned about piracy. They could still be the number one spreadsheet vendor if they thought about their customers before piracy."

In fact, OS piracy might increase because users in need of a full-fledged CD will provide more demand for illegal copies. "I believe this will only encourage piracy," another reader wrote. "If I had just shelled out a thousand bucks for a PC and then I want to install a peripheral whose install program requires me to insert the Windows CD, do you think I'm more likely to obediently make a trip to my local computer superstore and pay extra for yet another Windows license so that I can have the CD or to call up my buddy ... and maybe [ask him to] burn me a copy to make it more convenient for me in the future?"

Other readers complained that this practice is just a way of putting teeth into Microsoft's licensing policy that says you can't transfer a copy of Windows from the system on which it came to another computer. "If I have a license for each copy of each OS I run, it's none of Microsoft's business which machine is running which OS, or if I decide to swap OSes on two machines," wrote one reader. "This is the kind of practice that Microsoft can get away with because of being the 'only' choice."

Others opined that the large PC manufacturers, rather than Microsoft, might be driving the no-CD bandwagon. "Microsoft may be removing the full Windows CD to eliminate piracy, but there is another likely scenario," suggested one official at a small PC manufacturer that does not license Windows directly from Microsoft. "It's also possible that the major manufacturers asked Microsoft to eliminate everything except the license to reduce their costs and Microsoft said OK. I noted in your article [last week] that most of the nasty-sounding quotes attributed to Microsoft actually came from manufacturer's reps. I'll bet that the direct-license manufacturers could buy and include the full package if they wanted to."

Some victims of the medialess policy ascribed darker motives to Microsoft. "If I had known in advance that I would be short-changed this way, I would have ordered my PC sans OS, then purchased Windows 2000 Pro separately," wrote a reader who just received a CD-less PC with Windows 2000 on a drive partition.

"As it stands, there is no way to recover this machine from a disk failure, nor can I upgrade to a larger disk drive without PartitionMagic or some other utility to copy the NTFS boot partition. Seems to me this is an MS ploy to keep folks from experimenting with alternate OSes, as the penalties for destroying the MBR [master boot record] are severe."

In fact, a number of readers believed Microsoft's real intent is to discourage customers from trying alternative operating systems. "It might be said that this has more to do with monopolistic anti-Linux behavior than with piracy," wrote one reader. "The lack of a CD-ROM will clearly serve as a disincentive to anyone wishing to experiment with Linux."

An IT manager at a large manufacturer says that's exactly what Microsoft officials told him. "I spoke to some of my contacts there, and found out that the medialess format is primarily designed to be a firewall against competitors like Linux," he wrote, explaining it will make it harder to have a back-out strategy in place if an experimental Linux deployment gets into trouble. "Now I don't have any Windows CDs for the backout. What would you suggest I do if problems with Linux cause me to want to revert back to Windows? To discourage corporations and consumers from changing, they are no longer distributing CDs with every machine, in the hopes that fear of change without any practical possibility of return will discourage most users from even looking at other systems."

Who's right? I don't know; maybe all of them are, or maybe none. I know one thing, though: Microsoft has brought these suspicions on itself by choosing to implement this policy in virtual secrecy. When you keep folks in the dark, you should expect them to have a few black thoughts about you.

Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at gripe@infoworld.com.

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