Software giant Microsoft Corp. might have showed compassion this summer when it softened its demand that schools perform mandatory software audits. But in continuing to insist that original operating system (OS) licenses must accompany all school computers running Windows, the company still imposes an unfair hardship on disadvantaged schools, some ed-tech 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.

But that’s not a fair request, said John Rowlands, director of information services for the Seattle Public Schools. 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.

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 for disadvantaged schools. “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—said 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 company’s 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.”

Robin Freedman, head of 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.

Faced with such criticism, Microsoft reportedly backed off on its requests, saying it would give schools more time to complete the audits.

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.

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 address school leaders’ concerns.

But August said the company has been trying to address the licensing problem for years. 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. (For a full report on Linux in education, see our Special Report on page 27.)

“There is the perception that Microsoft is making too much money off of these low-income [schools],” he said. “It makes people really emotional.”


Wilderness Technology Alliance

Seattle Public Schools