Microsoft has urged UK PC vendors not to give customers the opportunity to buy a PC without a pre-installed operating system.
Supplying base systems, or 'naked PCs', is a missed opportunity, according to Michala Alexander, Microsoft's head of anti-piracy.
Writing in Microsoft's Partner Update magazine, which is distributed to computer dealers, Alexander estimated that 5 percent of computers sold in the UK in 2006 would not include an operating system.
Alexander is keen to bring that number down, even though customers could want a base system because they want to install Linux, or because their firm already has a licensing agreement for an operating system such as Windows.
"We want to urge all system builders — indeed, all Partners — not to supply naked PCs. It is a risk to your customers and a risk to your business — with specifically 5 percent fewer opportunities to market software and services," wrote Alexander.
Linux vendors and free software supporters, though, believe these base systems can play an important role in supporting the open source market. Some are concerned that Microsoft may be attempting to use its powerful position in the market to hamper competition.
The European branch of the Free Software Foundation hopes that PC vendors will not be swayed by Microsoft.
"We would be happy to see any kind of hardware being shipped without an operating system, or pre-installed with free software. Furthermore, we would be happy to get in contact with any hardware vendor who wants to free his customers this way," said Joachim Jakobs, of the FSF Europe.
Alexander's role is to combat the use of counterfeit and unlicensed versions of Microsoft's software. In February, Microsoft launched an initiative called Keep IT Real, in which "feet on the street" investigators would visit technology vendors suspected of installing counterfeit software on PCs before selling them.
In the article, Alexander appeared to reveal that these investigators will also have a role in clamping down on the sale of base systems.
"Microsoft is recruiting two 'feet on the street' personnel whose role will be to provide proactive assistance during customer visits, and help you get the value proposition for pre-installed software and related services. Give us a call and let's get those feet walking," Alexander wrote.
The FSF Europe is alarmed by the prospect that customers who request a base systems would risk a visit from Microsoft's investigators.
"It looks like a private sniffing service which is supposed to spy on these who do not want to pay the Microsoft tax anymore. It is an incredible piece of impudence which any politician, customer and journalist should recognise carefully," said Jakobs.
When contacted by ZDNet UK, Alexander denied that operatives would be dispatched into the premises of customers who attempted to buy a PC without Windows.
"I can confirm that the... personnel are not participating in customer visits. This is an error in the copy and will be amended in future material on the subject," Alexander claimed.
Alexander also insisted that Microsoft was simply trying to help its reseller partners by explaining how they could grow their businesses by selling its software and services. But she did reiterate that the software giant is concerned that the sale of base systems may be linked to the use of counterfeit software.
"There will be a concern if we see an increase in businesses selling PCs without Windows and piracy goes into the sky," said Alexander, who also rejected the suggestion that Microsoft was attempting to use its powerful position in the market to hamper rival operating systems.
Both Red Hat and Novell argue that naked PCs can be an important part of the overall market.
"Microsoft is clearly concerned about the threat of Linux on the desktop and is trying to protect its base. Naked PCs provide customers with choice and lower the price of commodity PCs," said a Novell spokesman.
"Customers want to have choice and they don't want to be locked in by one vendor, such as Microsoft," said Red Hat's Dirk Kissinger. "We would like to see more hardware vendors give their customers the choice of pre-installed operation systems, be it Microsoft or Red Hat or other options, or raw hardware without an operating system."
Several PC vendors contacted by ZDNet UK were reluctant to comment on the issues surrounding base systems. One, though, did say that they hadn't encountered any difficulties.
"We've had no pressure from Microsoft, yet," said a representative from Chillblast, a UK PC vendor that sells some computers without operating systems.