Their gain, your pain

Open licensing, or bulk licensing, saves a customer little money and opens the company to outside audits. Better to try out real open licenses - open source licenses.

The Unix wars of the last decade pretty well blew the word "open" into uselessness, but I'm still intrigued by the way it has been turned upside down yet again in one sad little corner of the computing world.

I'm referring to the Microsoft Open License Program. Of course, Microsoft isn't alone in the misappropriation: Adobe calls it Open Options; Computer Associates and others also have "Open Licensing" programs.

So what is an "open license"? The term apparently evolved from what most folks refer to as volume purchasing: buying software licenses in bulk without the extra boxes and CD-ROMs. With an open license, instead of all that packaging, all you need to keep track of are license numbers or unlocking keycodes - and those can even be delivered by e-mail.

Is it environmentally friendly? Sure. Is it cost-effective? Not as much as it should be.

Is it open? Heck, no.

As you might guess from the names of some of the companies who offer it, open licensing has nothing to do with open source. On the contrary, some of the prime marketers using the term are those most interested in the failure of open source software. Indeed, I can think of few companies more hostile to open source ideals than Microsoft and Adobe. (Luckily the most desirable software from those vendors have open source replacements, such as Linux, OpenOffice, Ghostscript and the Gimp, that are more than suitable.)

On the flip side of the coin, Linux-friendly companies such as Corel and Lotus carefully avoid the word "open" when describing their volume purchase programs.

By the numbers
You would think that paying for license numbers and keys rather than cardboard boxes and plastic would save you all kinds of money and headaches. This kind of transaction was practically made for e-commerce, direct from the software publisher to you. Unfortunately, the workings of the proprietary software industry make such high-tech savings much less attractive.

The main obstacle to the real passing on of bulk-license savings to buyers is the intervention of software wholesalers and retailers. This complex chain of distribution serves a valuable purpose in moving of boxes of software, but it also gets in the way of the customer's desire to get extra keys quickly and inexpensively.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar sponsored by software wholesaler Ingram Micro that extolled the merits of so-called open licensing to a small assortment of resellers. The primary message of the session was that resellers shouldn't be afraid of open license plans, and it described the various ways that resellers can inject themselves into these simple money-for-keys transactions.

Because of the involvement of this extra level in bulk-purchase transactions, the speed and convenience that online shoppers should take for granted are replaced with procedures that are cumbersome, bureaucratic and full of needless paper trails. I've seen the forms that resellers need to fill out to be involved in bulk-buy programs, and the complex point systems used to calculate what constitutes a volume purchase under some of these plans. It isn't pretty.

However, according to one report, it's the end-user, not the reseller, that gets hurt the most by this process. The municipal government of Virginia Beach was recently asked for an inventory and proof-of-purchase for all its Microsoft software, and ended up paying for licenses that they likely already paid for.

The threat of the audit is the key here: while buying a typical box of software doesn't require you to allow for an arbitrary audit, buying in bulk can. Virginia Beach, in order to get the volume rates, signed a contract that subjected the city to audits at Microsoft's demand.

Still interested in open licensing?

Consider software based real open licenses -- open source licenses -- instead. Using free software instead of their commercial counterparts won't bring the software police to your door - no matter what volume you use. If you must keep using proprietary products, consider carefully the rights you sign away in return for cost savings that may be far less than they should be.

Or, you could just keep in mind that use of the term "open" in "open licensing" really refers to "open checkbook."