Software giant Microsoft Corp. might have showed some compassion this summer when it softened its demand that schools perform mandatory software audits. But in failing to reverse its stance that all school computers running Windows must be accompanied by original operating system (OS) licenses, the company still imposes an unfair hardship on disadvantaged schools, some school technology leaders say.

The controversy stems from complications encountered when schools accept donations of refurbished computers. Although businesses and other organizations are eager to unload free computers onto needy beneficiaries, Microsoft recommends that schools never accept such gifts unless the proper OS licenses are included in the deal.

In fact, the company’s web site reads: “Microsoft recommends that educational institutions only accept computer donations that are accompanied by proper operating system documentation. If the donor cannot provide this documentation, it is recommended that you decline the donated PC(s).”

But that’s not a fair request, said John Rowlands, director of information services for the Seattle Public Schools. Local businesses and other potential benefactors, he said, aren’t always willing to spend the time or money it takes to dig through their files and produce original OS licenses to be included with the donations.

“A lot of businesses buy these computers by the hundreds, sometimes the thousands,” he said. That’s a lot of computers, but it’s also a lot of paperwork.

Rowlands, who manages technology for 100 Seattle schools, said slimming budgets and growing technology needs have added greatly to the value of refurbished computers, especially where disadvantaged schools are concerned. According to him, machines considered outdated in the business world might completely revitalize a beleaguered school’s computer lab.

“We have some schools with some very real needs,” he said. “Yet, we have to work harder and harder to find the resources for those very schools.”

Lou August, executive director of the Washington-based Wilderness Technology Alliance—an organization that specializes in placing refurbished computers in schools—argued that it shouldn’t matter whether or not institutions can provide a piece of paper to prove a system’s authenticity, because Microsoft already knows the OS is official.

In a letter he wrote to John Miller, head of software licensing for Microsoft, August urged Miller to reconsider the licensing policy. “For over a decade, every major computer manufacturer provided a legal Microsoft operating system license with their computers …,” he stated. “Thus, I felt that surely Microsoft would not deny the reloading of the original OS if a donor no longer had their paper license. After all, it had to be purchased with the original computer and could not legally be transferred. Requiring the repurchase of the OS because the certificate was lost is tantamount to Ford Motor Company issuing paper licenses for the use of tires on its cars; if the owner lost the paper license, new tires would have to be purchased.”

August told eSchool News he understands Microsoft is concerned because the company experienced real problems in the early ’90s when resellers diluted and illegally copied operating systems for redistribution. But today operating systems are non-transferable, he said.

According to August, by requiring schools to purchase new software licenses for donated computers, Microsoft unfairly requires its customers to pay again for licenses originally bought by the donor.

“The problem is that not enough people know you can’t transfer the operating system to another computer,” he said. “Once you know that, this [policy] becomes really appalling.”

In response to August’s assertion that all machines originally come equipped with proper licenses anyway, Robin Freedman, head of communications for Microsoft’s education solutions group, said that is merely speculation.

“Sure, we believe the computers had the licenses with them, but without proof it’s still difficult to make that assumption,” she said.

In July, eSchool News reported that Microsoft had sent out random software audit requests to 500 school districts in 32 states. Upon receiving the letters, several school leaders complained the requests were insensitive, while others argued they had neither the time nor the resources necessary to perform the audits in the 60 days allotted by the company.

In response to the criticism, Microsoft reportedly backed off on its requests, saying it would give schools more time to complete the audits. (See “Microsoft dials down school software audit demands,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3808.)

In fact, Freedman now says Microsoft has decided to replace its mandatory audit program with a recommended, self-paced audit schools can complete at their convenience. “There is no ongoing audit campaign in place at this time,” she said.

But that doesn’t take schools off the hook. Contractually, Freedman said, customers are required to maintain OS licenses for each Windows-based computer they own. If not, Microsoft has the power to impose fines on school customers not in compliance, but “that is not the road we prefer to take,” Freedman said. “We would like to be a partner.”

Although Microsoft has no plans to change its stance on OS licenses for donated computers, Freedman said the company is working on a new plan to better address school leaders’ concerns, but specific details are not available yet. “We are aware of the problem, and we are working on a solution,” she said.

But August, who was once a member of Microsoft’s System Builders Group, a pilot forum created to help the company better understand the needs of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), said the company has been trying to address the licensing problem for years. “I first asked that question in 1996,” he said.

Now, convinced relief is a long way off, August said several beneficiaries of his organization’s refurbishing efforts have expressed interest in exploring the use of Linux and other free operating systems. “There is the perception that Microsoft is making too much money off of these low-income [schools],” he said. “It makes people really emotional.”

Rowlands, too, said he has heard “more and more discussion all the time” about moving students to free and shared programs such as Linux and StarOffice.

“We’ve looked at the idea of moving kids into a free software arena,” he said. “And students could probably get by on a lot of the freeware.”

But while students probably could function with a different type of operating system, Rowlands says teachers and administrators probably could not. He said educators must have what he calls “RAS”: reliability, availability, and security. So far, these attributes can be obtained only by way of a Microsoft operating system, he said.

Freedman said the company is well aware that some customers have considered dumping the software giant for free, less-restrictive alternatives, but that Microsoft is convinced its solution remains the product of choice.

“Customers who are frustrated tend to look around in the environment to see what other technologies are available,” she said. “But we are confident that we will work through this to provide a solution.”

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Wilderness Technology Alliance
http://wildtech.org/home.htm

Seattle Public Schools
http://www.seattleschools.org/area/main/index.dxml