SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE IN
They paraded from a local strip mall to a suburban parking garage.
They carried signs demanding freedom of choice.
And they chanted slogans calling for the end of an unfair tax.
Call it the "March on Foster City," a political protest over a computer operating system, a rally that was vintage Silicon Valley of the late 1990s.
About 100 computer programmers converged Monday on the Foster City offices of Microsoft Corp. seeking a refund for copies of the Windows operating system they say they never wanted but were forced to buy. Microsoft hung a banner welcoming the protesters who cheered for alternative operating systems like the free, collectively developed Linux, and FreeBSD, a version of Unix. The two are underdogs in a market-share fight against the nearly ubiquitous Windows.
"In the '60s people protested over what was right," said Steve Rubin, a computer programmer with flowing gray hair. Rubin is a member of Severe Tire Damage, a rock band that describes itself as the first Internet-only band. "In the '90s people protest over money. People want their money back. They resent Bill Gates."
Others said money was a small part of what motivated protesters. Control of their destiny was more important, some said.
"It is a lot deeper than just my refund," said Marilyn Davis, who runs eVote, a maker of online voting software. Davis said the protesters want to prevent Microsoft from controlling the operating system, which she called the "nervous system of our future."
"The issue is as important as the peace issues of the Vietnam era," she said. "The difference is that people aren't dying."
Hyperbole or not, there were other differences too: The protest had a scattered, fun and genteel tone to it. The activists ranged from gray-haired veterans of '60s protests to college-age programmers with laptop computers. Some used wireless modems to beam reports of the rally to their favorite Web sites while others updated their friends over cell phones. Even the handful of Foster City police officers called in to monitor the event had a bemused expression on their faces.
Microsoft's public relations and marketing people were on hand to greet the protesters and answer questions from dozens of reporters and camera crews who gathered to witness the unusual rally.
No one got a refund, however, and the protesters were not allowed into Microsoft's sales offices on the ninth floor of the office tower.
"We are always available to talk with customers," said Rob Bennett, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows. "It's really up to the personal computer manufacturers" to issue refunds, he said.
The issue boils down to this: All personal computers sold with Windows come with an "end user license agreement" that says if the buyer does not agree to the terms of the license, they can return the product to the manufacturer for a refund. Most computer makers require users to bring the entire computer back for a refund, and won't issue a refund for the software.
Linux users, as well as users of FreeBSD, IBM's OS/2 and Be Inc.'s BeOS, say that when they buy a personal computer, they are being charged unfairly for Windows. They call it the "Microsoft tax," and they want the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker to take charge of issuing the refunds.
"We don't want their Windows and we want our money back," shouted Eric Raymond, who led the half-mile parade of protesters through the streets of Foster City to the rooftop of the parking garage adjacent to the Microsoft offices, where the event, dubbed Windows Refund Day, was held.
The process for refunds "is already in place," Bennett countered.
Raymond is one of the leaders of the "open source" or "free software" movement, which believes in freely distributing software source code, the basic instructions that programmers write. Publishing the code allows other programmers to review it and add to it, ideally ushering in software that is collectively developed for the sake of consumers. Their goal is also to undermine Microsoft monopoly control over the software industry and force other software makers to reduce the prices they charge for their products.
Despite the lack of refunds, protesters said the rally, which like the open source movement was the product of a grass-roots effort, was a success. Representatives of VA Research, a Mountain View-based maker of personal computers that come equipped with Linux, handed out dozens of T-shirts with the company's logo.
Mood to celebrate
"I want people to know that there is an alternative," said Larry Augustin, VA Research president and chief executive officer.
And although they could not get into Microsoft's offices, the protesters were in a mood to celebrate: They capped the Presidents' Day operating system protest at a San Francisco coffee shop party.
"It's unusual to get nerds to get together and do anything together," said Robert Berger, president of Internet Bandwidth Development, a Saratoga-based computer consulting firm. "But people sense there is a deeper issue here."