Self-Proclaimed Computer Geeks Hold 'Windows Refund Day'
By Amy Harmon
The New York Times
February 16, 1999
As mass movements go, Windows Refund Day might not have achieved the political profile of an anti-war protest or the popular support of, say, saving the whales. But for a demonstration over computer software, the turnout Monday was not too shabby.
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Tim O'Mahoney of the Linux Users Group and others favoring a free operating system marched yesterday near a Microsoft office in Foster City, Calif. Many carried unopened Windows systems and asked for refunds.
More than 100 self-proclaimed computer geeks showed up at Microsoft Corp. sales offices in several cities to make a public display of rejecting the software maker's ubiquitous Windows operating system and of demanding their money back.
Organized by advocates of Linux, a free operating system, the first March on Microsoft focused on a clause in the Windows license included with the software that comes installed on personal computers. That clause states that users who do not agree to the terms of the license can request a refund.
"People pay extra money for software they don't need, they don't want and they're entitled to return," said Rick Moen, a protest organizer in Foster City, Calif., where the largest crowd gathered on the roof of a parking garage adjacent to the Microsoft sales office there.
Microsoft officials who met the protesters told them to take it up with the computer manufacturers who sold them their PCs.
But several testimonials published on the Internet in recent months recount the difficulties users have encountered in obtaining a refund for Windows, which runs on more than 90 percent of all new personal computers sold throughout the world. For instance, most new machines are set up to boot Windows automatically when a user turns them on. And in a classic Catch-22, that in itself apparently constitutes an implied acceptance of the license, even though there is no way to get rid of the Windows operating system without turning the computer on in the first place.
Spokesmen for Dell Computer and Micron Electronics, two of the major manufacturers, said their policy was to give refunds within 30 days to customers who are not satisfied with their systems, but they said they did not give refunds for Windows alone.
"Not only do customers, with very rare exceptions, expect their computer to come with an operating system, but they, with very rare exceptions, expect that operating system to be Windows," said T.R. Reid, a Dell spokesman.
It is not as though the refund would pay for a new monitor. The few who have reported success have apparently received between $25 and $50. But protesters insisted that the point was not the money but choice.
"It's not a lot of money," said Mike Schiraldi, 20, who wore a faded Atari T-shirt and black Keds sneakers to the small demonstration in midtown Manhattan Monday. "It's just the idea that you're forced to buy Windows when there are better alternatives out there."
Paradoxically, that perception supports a central point the Microsoft defense team is trying to make in the company's continuing antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Company executives have several times pointed to the growing popularity of Linux as proof that contrary to the Justice Department's claims, Microsoft is not a monopoly.
That may be why the company deputized several executives and public relations representatives to meet the demonstrators with open arms. In New York and Foster City, demonstrators were handed a letter that began, "Dear Valued Customer" and emphasized that "fundamentally you, the consumer, have a choice of operating systems and PCs."
But the protest organizers also aimed to bring to the public's attention other of Microsoft business practices. A 1995 consent decree between the Justice Department and Microsoft prohibited the company from requiring computer manufacturers to pay for Windows on every computer sold whether or not the operating system had been installed.
But even without that requirement, critics assert that the company continues to use its market clout to ensure that nearly all new personal computers come with Windows pre-installed.
"The public doesn't have the knowledge to understand what Microsoft is doing," said Jordan Coleman, president of NetMonger, an Internet service provider on Long Island. "We know there are technically superior choices. So for us, it's a cause."
In Foster City, protesters carried signs reading "Pro-choice?" and "What part of 'refund' don't you understand?" One protester shouted, "Let my people free." Protesters who tried to get to Microsoft's ninth-floor offices in Foster City found the elevators blocked.
In New York, fewer than a dozen computer users with an aversion to Microsoft products met a representative outside the World Wide Plaza on Eighth Avenue before retreating to a hotel room across the street to install free software on new computers in preparation for a refund request. About a dozen protesters gathered at Microsoft offices in Irvine, Calif.
Reports were sketchier from New Zealand, the Netherlands and Japan, where demonstrations had also been planned.
Nobody got a refund.
But by one measure, the protest might have been a success.
"I'm interested in the whole idea of not having any one company control the operating system market," said Peter Lehrer, a 39-year-old accountant who drove in from Leonia, N.J., to attend the New York event. A Windows user, Lehrer is considering switching: "I just wanted to see what this was all about."