A free market for free software

Microsoft's desktop tax has closed down the market. There is a smart way to give consumers a real choice

It is one thing to recognise a problem, quite another to fix it. Although the Globalisation Institute is quite correct in saying that Microsoft's effective monopoly of the desktop is unfair to competitors and holds back the market, its proposed solution is no solution at all.

Banning the sale of computers with operating systems installed fixes nothing and inconveniences the customer: much like the impotent, symbolic gesture of making Microsoft ship a version of Windows without the media player.

There are better options. The institute decided against forcing retailers to offer non-Windows PCs alongside those with Windows installed because of the complexity of managing an infinite number of alternatives. But that's the very essence of choice: the customer should have the option at purchase of walking away with their choice of operating system installed and running. Furthermore, the relative cost of those operating systems should be reflected, fairly, in the price paid.

Because of the nature of bundling, the cost of the Windows component of a PC is hidden: indeed, it is very difficult for experts to find out how much OEMs pay for licences. Customers have no chance. For that reason, that incremental expense is often referred to as the "Windows tax". Let that tax be made explicit on the price ticket — and let the user decline to pay it. This means opening up Microsoft's licensing structure to public view. We have no problem with that.

Retailers then have the option of selling a naked PC with no operating system, or one with a free operating system, at a discounted price. The technology exists to create a European-wide image-distribution system that could put any operating system onto any PC at retail, in moments. A sensible retailer would keep up with demand by maintaining a small stock of ready-to-sell PCs with the operating system of the moment: not an onerous requirement. That system could be paid for by the Microsoft fine, and it would be open to any operating system whose licence allowed unrestricted copying.

There are many benefits to this approach. OEMs and operating-system writers will be motivated to keep their images up-to-date with security patches and features, minimising their own infrastructure expenses, and it would be an interesting new channel to the users. Even Microsoft would be free to join, when it produces a free version of Windows. Now that's a real free market.

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