Playing Chicken with Licensing

Is your shoestring caught in the tractor?


Auntie was watching the late night movies on the fabulous 500-channel digital widescreen home-theater TV the other night and pondering software licensing at the same time. It was that 1984 classic, Footloose, that sparked the connection. If you’re my age, you remember it well, but for you youngsters: There’s a scene in the movie where young Ren MacCormack gets pressured into proving his budding manhood by indulging in a lighthearted game of chicken on giant farm tractors. Ren (played by Kevin Bacon, just in case you forgot) wants to jump free early on, but his shoelace gets caught in some piece of tractor machinery and he’s forced to ride on, in slow motion, toward his impending doom.

It’s that image of a slow-motion tractor crash that brought Microsoft’s new Licensing 6.0 scheme to mind. Actually, “new” may be the wrong word. Licensing 6.0 was first announced in May 2001 and was scheduled to take effect in October 2001. Since then, it’s been pushed back several times and now takes effect in August 2002. One can’t help thinking that large customers were threatening to jump off the tractor.

To make its quarterly revenue numbers look good to Wall Street, Microsoft has to keep selling software. Companies who decide that Office 2000 or Office 97 are “good enough” are a threat.

If Auntie had to pick a Footloose character to play Microsoft, it would be Rev. Shaw Moore (John Lithgow). There he is on-screen, explaining why it’s important to be respectable, stick with the tried and true, and keep the town free of (gasp!) dancing. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear him earnestly explaining how Licensing 6.0 is good for you, with its three-year price guarantees. And true, if your company buys all-new versions at least once every three years, Licensing 6.0 will save you money. But if your cycle is longer, say, five or six years, you’ll end up paying more—perhaps much more.

Of course, to make its quarterly revenue numbers look good to Wall Street, Microsoft has to keep selling software. Companies who decide that Office 2000 or Office 97 are “good enough” are a threat. Now that new features are no longer enough to get you to buy the latest version, the folks in Redmond don’t have any choice but to introduce other incentives—like the threat of vastly higher prices for future upgrades if you don’t sign up for Licensing 6.0 now. Key to this new scheme is that licenses purchased under Licensing 6.0 automatically expire. After three years, you no longer have the right to keep using the software you purchased; you must buy a new version, or you’re breaking the law.

That’s Microsoft’s tractor. Clearly, the people who set up this plan believe your shoelace is firmly caught and that you couldn’t leap off even if you tried. You’re running Windows and Office. You have all that investment in training and all those files. You’d be insane to stop buying Microsoft software over a little thing like increased prices.

But there’s always an alternative. In Footloose, there’s the troubled-but-essentially-goodhearted Ariel Moore, played by Lori Singer. With her youth and disrespect for authority, she could be the poster child for open source software—like OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org). OpenOffice has just released version 1.0 of its free open-source suite of desktop applications. It imports and exports in native Microsoft Office formats, so you don’t lose your old documents. And it runs on Windows—or on Linux.

In the movie, of course, there’s a happy ending. The Rev. Moore realizes that he’s being too narrow-minded. Ren and Ariel get together for a rousing dance finale at the prom. The tractor-riding bully gets whomped, and everyone else smiles. But what about real life? Auntie would sure like to go dancing again, but she’s still waiting for the town council to lighten up. How about you?

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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