The Fantasy Microsoft Licensing League

Want to know what everyone else is paying for their Microsoft licences? Here's how

Microsoft's licensing deals are the best kept secret in the industry. If you have one, you know a piece of the puzzle but can't tell: Microsoft knows everything but won't tell. Yet even though you can't reveal your piece of the jigsaw -- and the top of the box with the finished picture on is nowhere to be seen -- you do know just that little bit more: the shape of the bits of the jigsaw adjacent to your own. If enough people offer up their best guess about what's going on in companies such as their own and someone else can collate all this, we may start to build up a picture.

Microsoft should be open to such ideas, according to a story from earlier this week concerning Microsoft's approach to licensing. In it, Microsoft UK's licence compliance manager, Alex Hilton, said that while the company had previously been seen as "wading in because it wanted the revenue", it now wants to present its customers with a more sensitive attitude. Of course, there was still a lot of confusion and complexity about licences, but making things simple would be counterproductive because "that will make our licensing programmes completely and utterly inflexible. There are lots of offerings in many colours and many shades, and that is much closer to what the customer needs," Hilton said.

Ah, poor Microsoft! So much perception to undo, so many customers to please. Is there anything we can do to help? We turned, as so often, to the thoughts of Bill Gates III: "The Internet will help achieve 'friction free capitalism' by putting buyer and seller in direct contact and providing more information to both about each other." Providing information on the Internet? That sounds like a job for ZDNet!

The free availability of information is essential for the proper operating of a market, and the proper operation of a market is in the interests of all. Microsoft's licensing operation is certainly big and important enough to qualify as a market -- so how can we help people to understand that market? What information can we provide to oil the mechanism and help customers choose which polychromatic, subtly shaded licence deal is best for them? Clearly, we should find out what people are buying and how much they're paying and let everyone know. Then when it's time for a new licence deal, people will be properly informed and can cut effective, fair deals.

Now, Microsoft is rarely forthcoming with the details of how much it charges who and for what. Indeed, its customers are bound by legally enforceable oaths of silence. It would be immoral and unethical of us to ask companies to breach their contractual obligations -- much as we might dream of what might happen if every customer decided to do that, all on the same day.

Instead, we'd like to find out what you think your nearest competitors are being charged. Obviously, neither you nor we have any knowledge of this. Were we to hazard a guess, it would be miles out, guaranteed. But you, dear corporate reader, have one crucial advantage -- you know exactly what Microsoft is charging you for your software. It's a fair bet that you also know how similar or dissimilar your nearest competitor is in terms of IT infrastructure -- number of seats, general server provisioning, that sort of thing. So you can put two and two together and come up with a figure in the region of four.

And that's what we want to know. We understand that this game might seem a little sensitive politically, and so we're not asking for signed public depositions. Just email us with something along the lines of "I guess that a UK based company with a turnover of £400m and 4000 users has a site licence for three thousand W2K desktops at £30 a pop" or whatever. You can be entirely anonymous -- use Hotmail rather than your company system, if you like, that's why Microsoft provides the service -- and for heaven's sake, don't tell us anything you shouldn't. But feel free to make your guesses as detailed as you like. If it's in your comfort zone, it's in ours.

We'll collate the information and when we've got a nice spread we'll publish a league table. What confidence will we have that the figures are worth anything? As statisticians know, if you get enough data then anomalous results stand out -- and once it's published, we'll know from readers' reactions how close to the truth it is. A few iterations of the table and we should be getting somewhere.

It might not be the friction-free market of which chairman Bill dreams but it's a start. And we can all be proud of helping the new world come about, and giving Microsoft just that little boost towards achieving its aims.