More From The Oregonian

Steve Duin

Microsoft puts the squeeze on NW schools


P redatory? Monopolistic? Customer-unfriendly? Microsoft?

Say it ain't, Joe . . . and Steve and John and Scott and the rest of the computer tech supervisors at the 24 largest school districts in Oregon and Washington.

At the busiest time of the year for those districts, Microsoft is demanding that they conduct an internal software audit to "certify licensing compliance." In a March letter, the software giant gave Portland Public Schools 60 days to inventory its 25,000 computers.

"Which," said Scott Robinson, the district's chief technology officer, "is a virtual impossibility."

Microsoft is well within its rights to call for an audit. Everyone says so. Everyone has read the contract. But school officials in both states are calling the audits "untimely," "outrageous" and "typical of Microsoft: not very bright."

Many also consider the audit requirement a strong-arm tactic to push school districts into Microsoft's costly system-wide licensing agreements.

"Given the fact that the letter came from their marketing department, and included a brochure about their school licensing agreement, this didn't seem terribly subtle to any of us," said Steve Carlson, associate superintendent for information and technology for Beaverton schools.

"I have a more simplistic view," said John Rowlands, director of information services for the Seattle School District: "They just want to squeeze every nickel out of us they can."

For sheer irony, it's hard to beat the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pouring millions of dollars into small, high-tech high schools even as Microsoft is looking for loose change at schools such as Jefferson and Marshall.

The school districts are considered guilty of software piracy until they can prove they're in licensing compliance. If the district can't drum up the staff to manage the inventory, Microsoft is willing to show up with its own audit crew, but if a single computer is found with illegal or undocumented software, the district must pay for the audit.

"This doesn't recognize any of the complexities of the educational environment," Robinson said. Many of the 25,000 computers in Portland schools were donated and arrive without pedigree or papers. "We're bubblegum and baling wire in terms of what we're putting on the desktops. For us to try to manage every donated desktop that comes in from a business or an individual is ridiculous."

Ah, but wait. Microsoft has an offer it thinks you can't refuse, if only to avoid the audit: the vaunted Microsoft School Agreement. Under the terms of this agreement, a school or district simply counts its computers and pays Microsoft somewhere in the neighborhood of $42 per machine for one systemwide annual license.

As Rowlands noted, IBM rolled out this idea years ago. Schools liked it because they could add hundreds of computers over the course of the school year and not pay for the additional software licenses until the next computer count.

But Microsoft has put a new spin on the agreement, requiring an "institution-wide commitment." That means the district must include in its count not only the PCs, but all the iMacs and Power Macs that might conceivably use Windows software.

What would it cost Portland Public Schools, which is already facing a $36 million shortfall, to sign that Microsoft School Agreement?

"A rough number? $500,000," Robinson said, "which translates, roughly, into 10 teaching positions."

No one at Microsoft -- and I dialed three different offices -- returned phone calls Friday to explain why the "random" audits targeted the nine largest school districts in Oregon and the 15 largest in Washington. Nor was anyone available to explain why Microsoft failed to notify the two groups chartered to represent the schools in licensing negotiations, the Oregon Educational Technology Consortium and the Washington School Information Processing Cooperative.

"Everyone has a bad taste about the way this came down," Carlson said. "The audit is heavy handed; its non-participatory. Either they're starting out with the assumption that we're all crooks or they feel they can bludgeon school districts into their marketing agreement. It's clear they're not spending much time talking to the schools they're purporting to be supportive of."

Thus, it's not surprising that several schools are asking, along with Robinson in Portland, "whether we want to continue with the Microsoft platform."

One of the options is Linux, open-source software schools can run on their desktops free of charge and without a license. Linux is particularly useful on donated computers that aren't worth the $100 Microsoft charges for a software license.

Paul Nelson, a teacher at Riverdale, and Eric Harrison with Multnomah ESD have developed a thin-client software called K12LTSP that runs Linux. In the last nine months, they've distributed the software to 5,000 schools.

"Schools and government agencies that are paying for Microsoft Office are wasting money," Nelson said. "They should be using free software. A lot of this stuff has become generic. It doesn't take a fancy program to make something bold."

R. Thor Prichard, the executive director at the Oregon Educational Technology Consortium, observed, "Microsoft has made it known they're concerned about Linux invading their territory. They're doing a lot of strategy building about eliminating Linux as a threat. Some of the districts they targeted are some of the districts doing initiatives in Linux."

Subtle? Artful? Benevolent? Microsoft? That'll be the day. Reach Steve Duin at 503-221-8597, or 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland OR 9720

Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved.