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
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 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
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
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.