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Microsoft wants you to spy on 'Naked PCs'

Microsoft is offering prizes such as barbeque grills and Fossil watches for people who turn in companies that buy PCs without Windows.

Microsoft wants to know if you're not using its operating systems, and if you aren't, is willing to pay your system vendor "valuable" prizes for turning you in.

In the new program, outlined in a memo issued by Microsoft's Western Region OEM group, Microsoft trumpets: "You may be eligible to win prizes! Here's how... By submitting bids that request PC systems without an Operating System due to a Microsoft site license, you can earn points and win! ... If you are the first to identify the bid you will be awarded one point for each PC specified on the bid."

And what can a vendor win? For 250 "naked" PCs, you'll get five Microsoft game titles; for finking out to the tune of 500 PCs, you'll get the games plus a Fossil Big Tic watch; and for 1,000 ratted-out PCs, you'll get all of the above, "plus a Fast Cook & Grill Combo and Travel Chair."

Worried that your customers might take offense? Don't be, Microsoft reassures you. While you may have compromised your customer's privacy, your privacy will still be protected: "Microsoft will not disclose your Company's identity as the source of the bid information,"

When Andrew Grygus, CEO of Axxnet, a California-based system integrator, first reported this new Microsoft project. Many people were skeptical. After all, the prizes were, well, a bit on the odd side.

Afterwards, many Linux and other operating system supporters took offense at Microsoft for what they saw as yet another attempt to muscle in on their operating systems and shove them out of the market.

Grygus has another take on it, though. He says he doesn't see this as an attack on alternative operating systems-and he supports Linux, OS/2, and SCO Unix on the systems and services he sells. Instead, he says he sees Microsoft trying to push into his business relationship with his clients.

"Microsoft is really asking people to fink on their corporate customers," he says. "This is a pretty sleazy act, and it interferes with the confidentiality with the OEM and system integrator-client relationship."

Ransom Love, CEO of Caldera Systems, a major Linux vendor, agrees saying, "what an interesting way to sugar-coat cyanide. I can see that Microsoft is trying to walk a line, but the undertones are so evident. It's one thing to try to provide better service, it's another to use the same information to insure that things go their way." Sleazy or not, Microsoft admits that the prizes-for-names memo is real, and that it marks the kick-off of a Western Region pilot program which, depending on its success rate, could be extended across the U.S.

Microsoft officials deny the intention of the program is to browbeat resellers or customers into requesting new PCs preloaded with Windows only, as some alternative OS vendors have suggested. In fact, the program is aimed only at those customers who claim that the reason they want naked PCs from their resellers is that they believe they're covered by Microsoft's Select and Enterprise Agreement (EA) volume licensing programs.

The program memo subhead, however, is: "Identifying PC Bids that do not include an Operating System for each PC." And, the document's first lines are: "Microsoft OEM Western Region introduces a pilot program that rewards you for notifying us about Bids that do not include operating systems and helps you help your customers to be compliant."

While the document then details a plan more in line with Microsoft's explanation, a quick scan of it is likely to give resellers and vendors the impression that the points are for any PCs sold to customers without operating systems-i.e., systems that are likely to end up running Linux, FreeBSD, or another non-Microsoft operating system.

Microsoft goes on to say that its volume license agreements do not cover new PCs. They only cover renewals of licensees for already purchased PCs-a point many customers seemingly don't understand, Microsoft says.

"Lots of resellers and systems builders told us they are getting these kind of requests for proposals (RFPs). There is some confusion around our Select and EA volume licensing," acknowledges Microsoft corporate spokesman Matt Pilla. "Lots of these [resellers] told us they want us to contact the customer." The intent, he stressed, is to make sure that the customers "don't inadvertently fall out of compliance" with their license agreements, not for Microsoft to start conducting customer audits.

System vendors say they don't think that it's so much about internal customer audits, either. They think it's about Microsoft interfering with their vendor-customer relationships.

Given the recent consolidation of Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) and Product Support Services (PSS) into a single entity with a newfound mission to be a profit center, one can hardly blame service providers and resellers from being dubious about Microsoft wanting to know more about their customer relationships-especially when it's information that the customer may not want shared.