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Editor's Note: Adding Color to the Oleo

Avoiding the M$ Tax

  • May 25, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

Earlier this week I was in Los Angeles on business, and I happened to pick up the Los Angeles Times. On the back page of its business section was a full-page ad for Fry's Electronics, a large retailer on the Left Coast. If you're unfamiliar with the company, Fry's is a place for serious geeks; the firm's ads are filled with listings of components and toys for those who love putting together their own hardware configurations.

What made the ad noteworthy was a large listing in the upper-left corner for a new system--or rather, the bare bones of a new system. Basically, the ad was for a box with a high-end graphics card, power supply, motherboard, and CD-ROM drive; you needed to add your own hard drive and RAM. The price was $299. (No, don't bother asking me for a Web address for the system: Fry's doesn't sell via the Internet and doesn't have a commerce site.)

In addition, the ad featured a large Tux penguin, proclaiming that the system included the Linux operating system. That was it: no Microsoft operating system was included.

Think about it: why would someone sell a bare-bones system without a hard drive and with a copy of Linux? That's right: while I haven't confirmed this with anyone from Fry's, my assumption is that by selling the system sans hard drive and in an unassembled form, Fry's and the system manufacturer are sidestepping any onerous Microsoft agreements that basically place a M$ surcharge on any system shipped.

Weird workarounds in response to industry protectionism is nothing new: in the old days, oleomargarine manufacturers were banned from shipping yellow oleo that looked like butter, so instead they shipped oleo and yellow food coloring separately and consumers were forced to physically add the color to the oleo. (This was actually the compromise: when oleo first appeared, many states mandated that oleo ship with pink food dye so it wouldn't look at all like butter.) We still have vestiges of this protectionism: many states limit oleo sales to a pound or less.

Now, obviously, it will take some creativity to work around M$ and create a level playing ground for Linux vendors, and today's announcement that Judge Jackson is considering a three-way split of Microsoft is good news indeed. But it's only the beginning: until the onerous requirements that have marked Microsoft contracts with PC vendors are eliminated, we're all forced to either a) pay Microsoft for a OS that we don't need, b) buy guerilla systems like the one offered by Fry's, or c) work with Linux-only resellers like Penguin Computing and VA Linux, who aren't subject to a Microsoft tax.

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