Windows: Whether You Want it or Not

Originally posted: 2010-05-27

Suppose you want a computer. Suppose you don't want Microsoft Windows. Here are your choices among the major vendors: Apple and Dell. Of course, Dell won't tell you that you have a choice. Among the minor vendors, there are only really two choices: System76 and Zareason. Sure, there are others, but they either seem cater to scientific institutions or they have bad websites (some won't even let you order online).

Why am I so pissed off about this? I don't want Windows. I find Microsoft's business practices disgusting and morally offensive. Apple isn't much better (one could argue, in fact, that they are worse). I would rather like to have a Thinkpad, as the hardware seems to be quite nice, but I don't want to buy Windows and I don't want to jump through hoops to get a refund for it. I just want the damn hardware. A blank hard disk suits me just fine.

Why, then is the computer market in such a deplorable condition? There are a couple reasons. One is that Microsoft gives OEMs better prices if they only sell machines with Windows or if they sell no more than a certain quantity of computers without Windows. Because so many people are stuck with Microsoft products, getting a lower price for Windows confers substantial market advantage, especially as hardware prices continue to drop. One of the excuses Microsoft gives for this behavior is that it supposedly discourages unauthorized copying of Windows. According to Microsoft, if Lenovo and Dell offered computers with blank hard disks and no Windows licenses, multitudes of customers would then purchase those machines and install unauthorized copies of Windows on them. They then state that the Windows product activation system prevents people from using unauthorized copies. Which of those statements is true, Microsoft? Really, this is all about not giving the customer a choice.

Another reason is crapware. Crapware is software (usually trial versions or software that requires a subscription-based service) that the OEMs are paid to install. The hope is that people will try the trial versions (or trial subscription) and then buy the full version. Because the OEM is paid to install this software, the effective cost of Windows is substantially lower than it otherwise would be. Unfortunately, many customers do not like crapware (hence the name). For them, it does not have any value, so in effect, the price of Windows is higher for the customer than for the vendor. So, when the customer exercises his rights as guaranteed by the Windows EULA and common anti-bundling laws, he often receives very little money in exchange for Windows.

It then stands to reason that the OEMs should offer computers with a crapware-laden Linux distribution preinstalled. After all, they can get Linux for free, so they should come out ahead in the end. However, this will not work for a number of reasons. First of all, many (perhaps even most) of the people who would purchase these machines initially do not like crapware. Many of them would probably replace the OEM's installation of Linux with a clean one. Since putting crapware on a Linux machine is unlikely to lead to increased sales, the tactic would fail. Furthermore, most crapware only runs on Windows, and the OEMs would have a hard time convincing its producers to port it to Linux. Lastly, it is very easy to install lots of open-source software on Linux machines, so Linux users tend to try open-source alternatives before purchasing closed-source software, and open-source alternatives are frequently good enough for the user's needs or superior to the closed-source software. Hence, the OEMs stick with Windows.

What can we do about this? I think this is a case in which the government legitimately needs to step in. There should be a law stating that any computer sold with software must also be available without software. That is, Lenovo should be legally obligated to offer me a Thinkpad with a blank hard disk and no Windows license. That would make it substantially easier to vote with one's wallet on operating systems. Microsoft likes to point to their huge market share as evidence of their superiority, but it's easy to be number one when you ram your product down the public's throat.