The bare-faced facts behind naked PCs

Buyers who want PCs without Windows are out of luck. Now more than ever, that means opportunity

In the cut-throat business of IT, everyone's fighting to save a buck and choice is king. That's how the top-tier PC companies choose to portray their game. As we found, reality is different. At a time when the alternatives are looking more convincing than ever, buying a PC still means buying Windows — whether you want it or not.

Of the top five PC sellers we talked to, none could actually provide a naked PC. Dell came closest, offering to ship a PC at a £50 discount provided we promised to erase Windows when we got it. The rest — Toshiba, Acer, HP and Lenovo — came nowhere near. You may have thought that these companies existed to sell PCs for a fair price configured to the customers' specification. In reality they will not, or dare not, do anything that risks that famous monopoly.

This is both unfair and contradictory. Many corporate buyers of PCs will have licence deals with Microsoft that cover any installation — and will reformat the hard disk with their own image as soon as it arrives. They're now paying twice. Individual buyers who want to install a different operating system are forced to pay for something they won't use. We are constantly reminded by software companies that using software without payment is theft. It isn't, of course. Theft is the taking of property with intent to permanently deprive — a description far better suited to the taking of money without rendering any service.

Everyone is in their comfort zones. The resellers are happy to be able to charge a bit more for a little less work — or get so much kickback from Windows utility merchants that they can't afford to ship a non-Windows machine. Customers have no choice and are resigned to paying the Windows tax, and Microsoft manfully struggles with the problem of being paid more often than it should.

With margins so thin and Vista upgrades inspiring so little enthusiasm, the market is ready to be shaken up. It's a good time to remember how the big names in IT got going, by aggressively evicting the competition from its comfort zone, and apply the same lessons in turn. This is supposed to be an entrepreneurial business. Let's make sure the PCs, not the emperors, are naked.

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