October 2007


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Why we should un-bundle Windows

Con Zymaris posts a pretty well-reasoned treatise on why we need to take regulatory action and force manufacturers to stop bundling Windows with new computers.

For the most part, I heartily agree with him. Where I disagree, is his closing statement:

Question: How is it possible to provide for both consumers who demand Windows and also ensure a fair and open marketplace for competing platforms?

Answer:That’s the $64 billion question, isn’t it? Here’s how it can be done.

All hardware manufacturers should ship personal computers with no pre-installed operating system. They should include within the packaging of the computer a media copy of the then current Microsoft Windows recovery CD. They should also include a copy of one of the main Linux distributions which are freely-redistributable at no charge.

Upon unpacking the computer, the consumer must then make a choice of either:

1. loading Windows from the Windows recovery media, then using the brochure included with the recovery media to contact Microsoft and through some form of financial transaction, acquire a licence to use Windows, or

2. load the Linux operating system from the CD/DVD included, and use it as their computer operating system.

(Legal bits:Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document, provided this permission notice is preserved on all copies.)

I have two major problems with this statement:

1) The average computer user is not skilled enough to install an operating system. You’d like to think that they are, but having worked in both retail and corporate computer support, I can tell you truthfully that John and Jane Doe are clueless about the procedure, and more importantly don’t want to learn.

They can barely get through unpacking it and plugging all of the color-coded connectors in the right place. Once they’ve gotten that far they just want to be able to turn the thing on and have it work. Shit, have you ever looked at the installation manual for a Dell computer? It’s a glossy color poster with pictograms on it because that’s all the average user can manage.

2) Mr. Zymaris keeps referring to a Windows “restore CD”. A restore cd is typically a digital image of a hard drive that has had Windows installed on it and configured for a fresh user, then packaged into a nicely useful two- or three-click install procedure. And those three clicks are usually “Are you sure?” A Linux install CD, however, is packed with options and choices that John and Jane Doe won’t know the answers to.

If you really want to level the playing field, give them a restore CD for Windows and another one in a popular Linux flavor that has had equal care given to the configuration. Better yet, do what Dell has (grudgingly) done and offer either OS pre-installed. There is no reason the user should be forced to do the final install. Have you ever seen a car dealer that would sell you an upgraded stereo option – and then make you install it yourself?

On top of that, the manufacturer should provide the same level of support for both OSes. J&J D might be willing to give Linux a try if they knew they could call someone for help – and it needs to be real help too, not the typical “oh, you have installed unsupported software on your system so now I can’t help you” bullshit.

So what I would like to see is three options for configuring a computer on the manufacturer’s website: No OS, Windows, or Linux. That way you have the choice of rolling your own, taking the safe road, or taking the scenic route and seeing something new.

We will likely never see this happen though. At the retailer level such as Best Buy or CompUSA, it means they have to devote more shelf space to each individual product to showcase both factory-supported options, which will cause some griping and foot-dragging. At the manufacturer level, the same grumping will happen due to the increased training and staffing required to fully support a second option. Combine these two, and you have a lot of lobbying dollars going toward backing up Microsoft and maintaining the status quo.

If the un-bundling were to happen, you would not see a reduction in price for probably a couple of years as the manufacturers and retailers paid for the extra training and shelf space.

Just my two cents.

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