Unless you've been
hiding under a rock lately, you must have heard that here in the
United States we've elected a new president. You might also be aware
of the fact that one of the chief issues on his agenda is a major
tax cut which he is actively trying to push through the Congress.
It goes without saying that many of us would be thrilled to
receive a little break on our income taxes. However, President Bush
never seems to talk about the other kind of taxation, specifically
the so-called "Microsoft tax." While it has been officially outlawed
by the infamous consent decree of 1995, it is still next to
impossible to buy an x86-based personal computer without some
variety of Windows.
Furthermore, although U.S. tax laws are rather convoluted, their
texts are openly available to the public. On the other hand, nobody
but the select few really know what PC manufacturers actually pay
Microsoft for the privilege to preinstall Windows.
About the only thing that we can be sure of is that there are two
main "tax brackets." The "rich" corporate users shell out more to
get Windows 2000, while the "poor" consumers have to get by with
Obviously, with Linux gaining momentum in recent years, it has
become a lot easier to get a Windows alternative preinstalled on
systems supplied by major manufacturers. However, out of the top
five PC makers in the U.S., which together control about two thirds
of all the domestic shipments, only two offer such an option for
Dell is leading the way with a wide selection of Dimension
desktops and OptiPlex managed PCs available. They also offer Red Hat
Linux on many of their laptops. IBM, on the other hand, preinstalls
Caldera OpenLinux on some ThinkPad T-series notebooks, but I
couldn't find any NetVista desktops that wouldn't have a Microsoft
OS on them.
As for Compaq, HP, and Gateway, they simply "recommend Windows
2000 for business," although all provide some kind of Linux support,
mostly geared towards servers and high-end workstations.
So, can you really escape paying a licensing fee to "Da Man" when
you buy one of the above mentioned Linux systems? Let's find out!
To answer this question, I first tried to configure two identical
mid-range Dell Dimension
4100 systems, one with Windows Me and the other with Linux. It
turned out that it didn't matter which OS I chose, but US$1,539
would buy me the following: Intel PIII 933MHz, 256MB SDRAM, 20GB
hard drive, 48x CD-ROM, SoundBlaster 64V, 3Com Ethernet, 19" FD
Trinitron monitor, and Harman/Kardon speakers.
However, the Linux machine comes with "no bundled software
installed," while the Windows configuration sports Microsoft Office
2000 SBE, Norton AntiVirus 2001, Trellix Web, and NetObjects 5.0.
In other words, I would pay the same amount of cash for freeware
Linux as I would for Windows Me with a boatload of commercial
software. Obviously, this money is not going to Red Hat, so the only
feasible explanation is that Microsoft still gets a licensing fee
regardless of whether or not a user chooses its software.
It came as no surprise to me that buying a Dell with Linux was
not going to be any cheaper, but luckily this is not a dead-end
situation. After all, I build my own PCs, so I can easily avoid
paying the "Microsoft tax" whenever I need a new desktop computer.
The situation is totally different when it comes to portables,
since there is no way I could put one together myself. So I looked
at what IBM, my personal all-time favorite, has to offer in this
T21 turned out to be the only model that is currently shipping
with Linux as well as Windows. All machines come with PIII 800MHz,
128MB SDRAM, 20GB hard drive, 8x DVD-ROM, and 14.1" TFT screen.
However, Linux and Windows 2000 configurations are priced at $3,249,
while the Windows Me unit is $100 cheaper.
Interestingly enough, DVD
is not officially supported under Linux, so it is rather strange
that IBM chose to include it anyway.
In other words, even if I wanted to exclusively use Linux on my
laptop, I would still have to pay the "tax" to the almighty
Microsoft. That is, of course, unless I considered Apple's
offerings. In fact, for just $3,199 I could order a Titanium PowerBook G4
with a top-of-the-line 500MHz PowerPC processor, a 15.2" mega-wide
TFT screen driven by an ATI Rage Mobility 128 card, and all the
storage options of the above-mentioned ThinkPad (sans a floppy).
The problem is that these beauties are so wildly popular, they
are just about as hard to get a hold of as the new Sony PS2s. Not
that I was planning to replace my iBook anytime soon.