Software giant Microsoft Corp. is working to ease the hard feelings sparked by an aggressive anti-piracy campaign aimed at schools. The campaign, which Microsoft now acknowledges was ill-timed, has prompted at least a few school officials in Oregon and Washington to consider switching to free, open-source software programs.

The 24 largest districts in those states received letters in April asking them to complete an audit of all Microsoft software on their computers within 60 days. The letters also contained brochures that explained Microsoft licensing options available to schools.

The letters were part of a broader campaign by Microsoft to find out whether schools nationwide are “under-licensed” and inform educators of what they must do to make their software legal, Microsoft spokeswoman Catherine Brooker said. Microsoft has sent letters and brochures to 500 randomly selected school districts in 32 states in all, she said.

Calling the audits “insensitive,” however, many Oregon and Washington school officials said they were offended because they received the request toward the end of the school year, already the busiest time of the year for them. Fulfilling the audits also would require extra manpower and expenses their schools hadn’t planned for, they said.

In response to the criticism, Microsoft has backed off its original request. The company said it would give school officials in those states more time to complete the audits.

“The letters that went to Oregon and Washington were the last letters to go out, and the timing was just bad,” Brooker said. She acknowledged that company officials weren’t “as sensitive as they should have been, and the second they realized it they moved to address [the problem].”

The inventory process is both time and labor intensive, school officials said. It requires someone to list all the software on each PC and Mac in every building, check to see if the licenses are current, and then possibly purchase new licenses.

“You’re basically asking someone to touch every machine,” said Scott Robinson, chief technology officer for the Portland, Ore., Public Schools. “We have 500 to 600 machines in 100 buildings. And, oh, by the way, I have a staff of 10 that would be doing this.”

John Rowlands, director of information services for the Seattle Public Schools, wasn’t entirely pleased with the request, either. “It’s a pain and a chore to do, but we’ll do it, and we’ll have it done in about a month,” he said.

Rowlands agreed that his district should have a valid license for each copy of software used, but he questioned the way Microsoft handled the request. “In the Pacific Northwest, the ‘randomness’ seems to be pretty specific,” Rowlands said. “Everyone we know has been audited. We all talk.”

He added, “I think Microsoft underestimated the work load required to do this.” Unlike private-sector businesses, he said, school districts are spread out across several buildings and lack additional staff members to inventory software.

The audits might end up costing some school districts more money then they have in their budgets.

Rowlands said schools struggle the most from software on donated computers, because donators don’t always pass along the software licenses with the computers. “If you cannot provide proof that the operating system was purchased, you have to go out and buy it,” he said.

The Portland Public Schools have 25,000 computers, about half of which are donated. Robinson said his district has only two choices: Take the machine out of service because there is no license on file for its operating system, or buy a new license.

“We don’t have the funding to go out and buy licenses, and we don’t have the manpower to do these audits,” Robinson said.

Several school officials in the two states banded together, telling Microsoft that its timing was inappropriate and that they lack both the funds and the resources to complete the audits. A Microsoft official told eSchool News that the company deeply regrets merely sending a letter and is now working directly with the districts on a case-by-case basis to devise a reasonable solution.

“Our approach was not sensitive to our customers,” said Robin Freedman of Microsoft’s education solutions group. “In the future, we will meet with our customers to work out an appropriate timeline.”

Nonetheless, the unexpected audit has prompted at least a few school districts to try free, open-source software programs such as Linux.

“[Microsoft is] driving more and more schools to Linux, because it’s a much more attractive environment financially,” Robinson said.

In fact, the Portland Public Schools are switching at least 17 middle school computer labs, each with 30 computers, to Linux Terminal Server labs by the fall. “We’re wiping Microsoft off those machines,” Robinson said.

These high-use labs will be cheaper to operate because the software is virtually free, he said. They’ll also be easier to maintain, because the computers will function as thin clients, powered by software sitting on a server rather than individual desktops.

“Linux does not have the problems with bugs and viruses that come with Microsoft. People tend to target Microsoft,” Robinson said.

A small but increasing number of school districts nationwide have been migrating from Microsoft to Linux software in the past few years. Sixteen school districts in central Iowa installed Linux on their computers last summer.

Eric Harrison from the Multnomah Education Service District in Portland, Ore., and Paul Nelson from the Riverdale School District in Marylhurst, Ore., created an open-source software package called K-12 Linux Terminal Server Package (K12LTSP) and reportedly have distributed it to some 5,000 schools.

Microsoft does offer license management tools that school officials can download from its web site at no cost to help them expedite the audit process, but school officials told eSchool News that these tools are not compatible with all computers that must be audited, such as Macintosh machines.

Links:

eSchool News Buyer’s Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.org/buyersguide

  • Company Search “Microsoft”

    Microsoft Q&A about its school audits
    http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/misc/04-30schoolsqa.asp

    Microsoft License Management Tools
    http://www.microsoft.com/licensemanagement/samguide

    Portland Public Schools
    http://www.pps.k12.or.us

    Seattle Public Schools
    http://www.seattleschools.org

    K12LTSP
    http://www.k12ltsp.org