Dell's backroom lawyers have come up with a cunning plan to ship Windows-free desktops without facing the Old Testament-style wrath of Microsoft and its all-powerful licensing agreement. But will Redmond turn a blind eye to the small-print quoters at Dell, or will the software giant get ready to rain fire and brimstone down on Michael Dell's head?
Redmond's newfound conversion to the cause of eliminating piracy in all its forms had taken it from requiring serial numbers to use its software to the now-infamous Windows XP "activation" procedure – in which XP upgraders have to get a second serial number linked to their specific hardware if they want to keep using it after the first 120 days of use. But as of 1 August 2002, MS's licensing terms for its hardware partners have stipulated that no PC should ship without an operating system – if everyone has to pay for Windows when they buy their PCs, there is no point in their obtaining pirated copies to install on their new purchases.
Home and corporate Linux users have long been opposed to Windows-bundling, arguing that if they never use Windows, they do not want to be forced to spend more money to have it bundled with their new PCs. And companies with volume licensing agreements do not want to have to pay for the same OS twice. But few major PC vendors have wanted to risk the wrath of Redmond and their ability to ship Windows-equipped PCs, just so they can capitalise on the small market for Linux desktops.
Dell's scheme is a clever re-reading of the new agreement that neatly avoids the dreaded 'L' word. The company's n-series corporate desktops, part of its Optiplex and Precision workstation lines, will now ship without Windows. But they will not ship with Linux. Instead, they will include a boxed-up copy of FreeDOS, a free version of MS's now-expired operating system. Corporates that want to avoid buying Windows PCs and wiping them ready for a new operating system can simply buy an n-series machine and install whatever OS they want right out of the box.
The machines will not be the easiest to obtain – only customers that buy desktops in large numbers through Dell's Custom Factory Installation program will be able to buy the n-series machines – so Microsoft may decide to look the other way for now. But if the scheme proves a success for Dell and others follow suit, expect a hasty rewriting of the agreement in time for the next renewal round.