Windows Required

When is a company forced to sell you their competitor's product? When the competitor's name is Microsoft. One man's futile quest to avoid doing Windows.

| Tue Jun. 9, 1998 3:00 AM EDT

Not really that sure that Microsoft has unfair trade practices? I mean, it's not like you are forced to use Microsoft's products. There are plenty of competing operating systems out there: OS/2, BeOS, and Amiga, not to mention nerdware favorite Linux (a freely distributed operating system whose customizable features make it the favorite of the pocket protector set). And those are only the ones that work on Pentium computers. So you've got plenty of options…or do you?

David Chun of the Consumer Project on Technology (CPT), a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocate group, tried to answer that question by calling up a dozen original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)—a.k.a. the people that make computers—in an attempt to purchase a PC without Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows operating system. He called salespeople at Dell, Gateway 2000, Hewlett Packard, IBM, NEC, Packard Bell, Sony, Toshiba, Quantex, UMAX, and Unicent. In each case, Chun asked the following questions:

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1. Do you offer any other operating systems?
2. Can I buy computers, any models, without buying Windows?
3. If not, why?
4. Can I return Windows and get a refund?

Chun also asked the OEMs which did not offer other operating systems, if they could sell the computers "naked," or devoid of any operating system at all. Although some of the companies Chun called sell their own operating systems (IBM sells OS/2, and Gateway sells Amiga, both of which compete with Windows), not a single OEM would sell a PC without Windows installed on the machine. Nor would any of the OEMs offer a refund for consumers interested in stripping Windows from their machines. If you do want a competing OS, you must buy Windows and the other platform as well, thanks to Microsoft's agreements with their vendors. OEMs will only sell you machines without Windows if you're buying in bulk.

Is this what the Department of Justice means when it accuses Microsoft of anti-competitive practices? James Love, director of CPT, thinks so. "Microsoft is definitely using its market power to keep competitors down, no question about it," says Love. "We're trying to call attention to the fact that there isn't really a choice for people buying a computer."

The following passages are some highlights from Chun's survey:

 
Date: May 25, 1998
Vendor: Sony
Salesperson: Cam
Can I buy computers, any models, without buying Windows?
"No, you cannot. We do not sell computers without an operating system. You cannot buy computers without a Microsoft Windows OS."
Why not?
"Sony cannot alter or customize OS. We are under contract with Microsoft."


Date: May 28, 1998
Vendor: COMP USA PC
Salesperson: William
What I tried to buy: 233 Pentium II, desktop
Do you offer any other operating systems?
"No company does. This the standard for computers at any other company."
Can I return Windows and get a refund?
"No, you cannot."


Date: June 3, 1998
Vendor: Unicent
Salesperson: Jamie
What I tried to buy: 266 Pentium II, desktop
Do you offer any other operating systems?
"We offer Windows 95 or Window NT. If you were going to order a whole network, we would consider a different OS, but certainly not for a single computer."
Can I buy a computer, any model, without buying Windows?
"No."
Why not?
"We have a contract with Microsoft."
Can I return Windows and get a refund?
"No. Even if you refuse to sign the Windows license and return the software, you must pay for it. However, if you buy five or more computers, we might be able to do something."


Date: June 3, 1998
Vendor: IBM
Salesperson: Janet
What I tried to buy: Aptiva 266 AMD, desktop
Do you offer any other operating systems?
"No, we only sell the computer with Windows 95. You can buy a copy of OS/2 for $199, but the computer comes with Windows 95 in any case, even if you are buyng OS/2."
Can I buy a computer, any model, without buying Windows?
"No, you must buy Microsoft Windows 95. You can buy a copy of OS/2, but this is in addition to Windows 95, not as a substitute. Except, however, if you are a big corporate account, and then you could try to negotiate a purchase without buying Microsoft Windows."
Why not?
"That's just the way it is."
Can I return Windows and get a refund?
"No, we don't give refunds on Windows 95, even if you don't want it or don't use it. It comes pre-installed as part of the computer, and you have to pay for it."


June 3, 1998
Vendor: Packard Bell
Salesperson: Jill, with PC Factory Outlet
What I tried to buy: 266 Pentium II, desktop
Do you offer any other operating systems?
"No, we don't. All we have is Windows 95, that is the only one."
 
To see a complete copy of David Chun's Windows saga, go to the Consumer Project on Technology Web site.
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