Updated: May 29, 2021
Would you pay for something you don’t want and you don’t use? Certainly not. This was the rationale given by groups of open-source software supporters when they demanded Windows to give them a refund. Around 150 people marched towards Microsoft’s office on the streets of California’s Foster City. They were also followed by the members of the press who wanted to capture the event for their organizations.
Most of these protesters were Linux users but some were advocates for other open-source platforms too. Armed with unused Microsoft licenses, they occupied the streets and had slogans promoting open-source operating systems. People were pissed with Microsoft Windows 98 - the operating system that came bundled with most PCs. Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid paying for it. Even if one wanted to use Linux, they’d still have to pay for Windows.
Around the same time, a case was filed by US Department of Justice against Microsoft. It was alleged that the company was indulging in anti-competitive business practices. They also had an unfair monopoly in the computer operating system and web browser space. Other operating systems like Linux (free to use) were trying to find a footing in the market. It wasn’t as widely used as Microsoft but it had its fair share of loyalists. Young and tech-savvy users who wanted an alternative to Windows jumped on the Linux bandwagon. A few of these users even believed that Linux was a safer and easier to use alternative. They could buy a Windows PC, wipe off the hard disk and install Linux. But they’d still have paid for a Windows license which didn’t seem acceptable.
Interestingly, Windows did have a clause in their user agreement which stated that users (who did not agree with their policy) can claim a refund by returning their operating system. However, they would have to contact the PC manufacturer for it. When users contacted their PC manufacturers, they appeared clueless and asked them to contact Microsoft. As a result of this confusion, the Windows Refund Day protest took place.It wasn’t the first time that someone protested against Windows and demanded a refund. In January 1997, Donna (a Linux user) was searching for a new laptop. She found that everything she looked at already had Windows pre-installed. She then asked the store manager to give her a system with an empty hard drive. The store manager said he could not do that because of an agreement that the PC manufacturers had made with Windows.
Frustrated with her attempt, she finally bought a Canon system pre-loaded with Windows. When the time came to accept the user agreement, Donna clicked on ‘No’. The agreement asked her to contact the PC manufacturer for a refund after which she went to Canon’s website. Even there, she could not find any information related to a refund.
She sent several emails to several people and got in touch with a manager at Canon. The manager was unaware that their company was liable to issue a refund. Perhaps, Microsoft didn’t inform their partners about the refund process because they felt that everyone would want to use their product. After days of relentless pursuit, Donna finally got her refund but that didn’t solve the problem.
A couple of years later, people were still marching on the streets against Microsoft. Since the Windows Refund Day protest was planned in advance, the company was prepared for it. They had posters welcoming Linux users and their representatives were present at the site. Even though, they were unable to appease the crowd, they were able to handle the local media in a professional manner. A Windows representative called the exercise a PR activity by Linux users to generate interest in their product. Some protesters even tried to enter the Microsoft office but weren’t successful. Ultimately, none of the 150 protesters got a refund but the Windows Refund Day campaign wasn’t completely unsuccessful. It brought to light Microsoft’s unfair practices and the event was covered in internationally acclaimed publications like The New York Times and BBC.