Microsofts Troubling Lessons for Schools

eLABorations: Guidelines for running Windows on donated equipment put a price on altruism—and may encourage Linux use.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a troubling page on Microsofts Web site, titled "A Guide for Accepting Donated Computers for Your School." Heres the passage that caused my consternation:

"It is a legal requirement that pre-installed operating systems remain with a machine for the life of the machine. If a company or individual donates a machine to your school, it must be donated with the operating system that was installed on the PC."

The page went on to counsel schools to refuse donated computers unless theyre accompanied by proper OS documentation.

Legal requirement? Microsoft requires its OEMs to license copies of Windows to their customers as part of one integrated hardware/software product. Separating an OEM-loaded copy of Windows from the machine on which it shipped constitutes a breach of that license if a user loads it onto another machine.

However, these legal requirements do not, as the text suggests, preclude schools—or anyone else—from installing a new, properly licensed copy of Windows on a donated computer with a murky software heritage.

Even better, one could install Linux on such a donated machine, which is free of Windows licensing requirements. And what better resource to provide for budding programmers than an OS for which the source code is freely available for perusal?

I got in touch with my friendly neighborhood Microsoft PR contact last week for some clarification, and he agreed that the language on the page was misleading. He assured me that itd be changed shortly.

On Monday, the ominous "legal requirement" references on the page had been replaced with more accurate information (see But its recommendation that schools refuse undocumented PCs had not changed.

This is likely because theres only one way to bring an illegitimately licensed PC back into Microsofts good graces, and thats by purchasing a brand-new copy of Windows.

As stated on its Web site (at, Microsofts volume licensing agreements (for schools and businesses alike) "only offer upgrade licenses, so the customer cannot acquire a naked PC and install a full operating system license under any Microsoft volume licensing program."

Microsofts Web site doesnt specify any academic discount for a single full-version copy of Windows XP, but the non-academic price is $300—a steep tariff for an organization soliciting donated computers.

By crafting its licensing policies to channel nearly all Windows purchases through computer makers, Microsoft can keep the actual price that users pay for Windows obscured behind OEM licensing agreements and can control the circumstances under which Windows competes with its rivals.

Any PC that begins its life without Windows is a PC that could host an alternative OS, so its in Microsofts interests to make sure that as few machines as possible ship without Windows.

This focus on hardware and software as one integrated product flies in the face of logic, and runs counter to some of Microsofts founding principles—at least as Bill Gates took pains to explain them during the recent antitrust remedies proceedings with non-settling states.

In his written testimony,Gates asserted that one of Microsofts major contributions to the tech industry was splitting software from hardware by bucking the status quo in which hardware-focused vendors such as Sun, Apple and IBM sold their machines along with the operating systems, and hadnt much incentive to promote interoperability among each others products. By largely staying clear of hardware, Microsoft helped pave the way for a diverse population of cheap and interchangeable PC equipment.

I agree with Gates on this point—without Microsoft, many of the exciting developments that took root in that environment of cheap, interoperable hardware would likely not have been possible.

So, in the spirit of software thats flexible and free of hardware-specific entanglements, Id suggest that schools install Linuxon their machines. Not only does it offer an excellent alternative to Windows, but Linux doesnt discriminate, either—no matter how checkered a machines licensing lineage may be.

Are you using Linux in an educational environment? Id love to hear how well its performing for you. Drop me a line at