It's now possible for public school districts in California (and maybe Iowa) to acquire decent Free Open Source Software computers, courtesy of Microsoft. The purpose of this article is to lay out the basic process involved, because the documentation available on the official websites is murky, at best. Hopefully this article will summarize the process a bit. Also, since Iowa just announced the conclusion of its settlement with Microsoft, it is possIt's now possible for public school districts in California (and maybe Iowa) to acquire decent Free Open Source Software computers, courtesy of Microsoft. The purpose of this article is to lay out the basic process involved, because the documentation available on the official websites is murky, at best. Hopefully this article will summarize the process a bit. Also, since Iowa just announced the conclusion of its settlement with Microsoft, it is possible that a similar process will apply there in Iowa.
I am a volunteer systems administrator for a public charter middle school in northern California. Any student in the entire state of California can attend this school, which has asked that its name not be used in connection with this article. Because it is a charter school, it qualifies under the California Microsoft Anti-Trust Settlement Agreement (CMASA) as a "school district", and so is responsible for administering its own provisioning under the CMASA. This independence from the local Unified School District (USD) was a nice bonus for a GNU Linux enthusiast such as myself, because my earlier attempts to interest the local USD in GNU Linux fell flat.
The first step to receiving your very own Microsoft-sponsored Free Software computers is to go to the relevant page on the California Department of Education website, linked below here:
That site will give you the eligibility and timelines for filing your claim, as well as links to all the forms that you need to fill out. As of October of 2007, it appears that there is still plenty of time to file for status, but please check out the timeline for yourself, as I don't want to tell what the deadline is and have it turn out that I was wrong. Let's just say that the clock is ticking, and your Free Software computers are awaiting impatiently!
There are a few forms to fill out during this process, but let me assure you that the process is well worth it. I can't say how much our school was entitled to recover under the CMASA, but let's put it this way: it probably penciled out to about $500.00 per hour if you were to divide the value of the hardware and software recovered over the staff hours spent filling out the paperwork. So don't let the paperwork deter you!
After you read basic intro on eligibility from the California Department of Education website, you will need to dive into the nitty gritty on the website of the Microsoft Settlement Administrator (MSA), which is located here:
It's important to get the big picture on this settlement agreement, because Microsoft's lawyers did a great job of muddying the water to confuse people and discourage them from filing claims. But again, let me stress that this process does work, and it will be worth your time, and it's not that hard once you grasp the basic concepts.
The big picture here is that this program is a *voucher* program. Again, Microsoft's lawyers cleverly structured this settlement so as to require the individual school districts to "buy-in" to the process by first purchasing the equipment and THEN Microsoft will remit payment in full for qualifying hardware and software.
In our case, we wanted to acquire only Free Open Source Software-powered computers, and so that was a bit confusing at first for the Microsoft Settlement Administrator (MSA), because the employees of the company that is staffing this settlement administration just were very new to Free Open Source Software. They were initially reluctant to fund the software portion of our acquisition, until we explained that our vendor, which happened to be Berkeley-based Zareason.com, was unwilling to sell us the hardware and software unless we paid for it.
It really cleared things up for the MSA staff when I explained that Free Software means free-as-in-free-speech, but NOT free-as-in-beer. I explained to the woman handling the claim (let's call her "Lisa" -- not her real name) that even the creator of the Linux kernel, Linus Torvalds, does not roll his own distro, due to the inconvenience of dependency hell and compiling from source, etc. Instead, Linus has stated publicly in a May 19, 2006 interview with The Network Administrator.com that he uses prepared distros.
I explained to her that I am a level one sys admin, and a volunteer to boot, and that I would not have the time or the skill to install all the software needed for institutional use. Sure, I have installed GNU Linux distros many times, but would I want to take the responsibility and time for making sure that an industrial-strength install was done correctly? No. Nor would the school want to pay for a distro installed by a rank volunteer. The school wanted and deserves to have a professionally installed operating system and commercial-quality applications, just as if they had chosen to purchase Apple-based software or Microsoft Windows-based software. The whole purpose of the CMASA is to redress the imbalance in the California desktop software market, and it obviously would not due to limit consumers' choice of an OS to the convicted monopolist's software or that of the lone commercial competitor (Apple).
And let me say that I did not have to use a heavy tone in discussing our situation with Lisa. She was professional and polite, and she listened carefully to all I had to say. It might sound like stating the obvious, but I would strongly encourage you to remain calm when dealing with these admins in the MSA, because they seemed to deal fairly with us, once we had explained our situation and our choices.
Now for some more nitty gritty detail. As they say, the devil is in the details, and that certainly is true of this settlement. The key concept here is that the settlement vouchers come in two flavors: hardware and software. The hardware is really a no-brainer for the most part: the settlement covers basically your garden-variety hardware, including both garden-variety servers and workstations.
The tricky part comes in the software side, and so note this very well: The settlement does NOT cover custom software!!! This is where it came in very handy to have a company like Zareason.com on the job, although I am sure that any other vendor such as System76 or EmperorLinux or TechCollective.com would do the job just as well. The crucial factor that swung Lisa over to our side is that Zareason.com didn't have to bat an eye in providing us with the Edubuntu servers and video-ready openSUSE and video-ready edubuntu shuttle boxes that they sold us. It was just another day at the shop for them. There was NO custom software involved in their sale to us. This does not mean that you can't request a special package or two here; but even a major company like Dell and Hewlett Packard will give you a choice of some basic software packages to purchase. When Lisa realized that Zareason.com was not changing their work flow for us, and that Zareason.com was doing the same dawgone thing for us that Dell would have done with installing Ubuntu, it was a no-brainer for her to approve our application. But since there is some unique language in the settlement agreement, it bears to repeat the relevant language here for emphasis:
Vouchers will be issued in two categories: 1) General Purpose Vouchers and 2) Specific Category Software Vouchers. General Purpose Vouchers may be used to purchase specific hardware (listed below), any non-custom software for that hardware, evaluation tools, information technology (IT) services, and professional development services. IT and professional development services must be obtained from approved providers. Specific Category Software Vouchers may only be utilized to purchase specific categories of software (listed below) that are published or sold by any software provider. Both the General Purpose and Specific Category Software Vouchers may be applied in an amount no greater than the standard academic price, or if an academic price is not available, in an amount not to exceed the normal or standard price established by the manufacturer or vendor for such software. The following list gives examples of eligible goods and services that may be purchased with one or the other category of the vouchers: -- snip --
Please note that you will NOT be reimbursed for any services pursuant to this settlement agreement !!!! At least not the way that we did it. So if you want to venture off into the realm of buying a support agreement with your software and hardware purchases, please note that there is a strong likelihood that you will be paying for the same out of your own pocket, and that you probably will NOT be reimbursed for a single dime of support. Your Mileage May Vary, and this is not legal advice. We were careful to negotiate with our vendor on that basis. And our caution paid off, because we were reimbursed 100% for our acquisition, hardware and software an all. Again, YMMV !
Please note also that the above-quoted language might suggest that the second bucket, called the Specific Category Software Vouchers allow you to get something other than general purpose software. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again, in case I have not made myself clear, if you ask for custom software, you are out. Here is the list of exemplary software that comes under the definition of Specific Category Software Vouchers. Why they chose to call it that is beyond me, because this is generic stuff:
Desktop relational database oriented towards single users and typically residing on a standard personal computer
Productivity and/or Productivity Suite
Server, including client access licenses
Eligible software bundled with a computer purchased with the General Purpose Vouchers
It is crucial to note that the real value in this deal from the perspective of a vendor is the opportunity to be paid for packaging Free Open Source Software. We did submit this proposal to a couple of hardware vendors, who backed off of the deal and would not supply us, because they thought that there was a risk that our school might not be reimbursed for Free Open Source Software, and for them to spend the time installing Free Open Source Software on a system, and then not be able to bill for that software, was a deal breaker for them. Fortunately for us, Zareason.com took the risk, and it paid off for them and for us. It was a win-win all the way around, and since Microsoft is oh so cozy with open source software these days, maybe it was even a win for them.
Do be sure to work closely with your settlement administrator, and do be sure to submit your acquisitions to them in advance, so that they will be able to approve or disapprove the acquisitions. Do not just rush out and make your purchase without checking in with them, and it also makes sense to use a vendor such as Zareason.com that has been through the process at least once already. (By the way, I have no financial relationship with Zareason.com or any other vendor mentioned in this article, and I am not recommending any particular vendor over any other).
The moral of the story is that while it might be a little bit daunting at first to make a computer hardware and software purchase for which you are paying for packages that are downloadable for free on the Internet, just remember that your time is, in fact, valuable, and the software vendors like Canonical and Novell and Red Hat provide a valuable product; namely working packages. Likewise, your hardware vendor provides a valuable service of installing those packages and providing you with a non-custom turn-key solution. Your school deserves the rock solid stability of Free Open Source Software, and the freedom to later go with another vendor, should you have an unsatisfactory experience with the first. Now, thanks to the California Microsoft Ant-Trust Settlement, you have the option of getting quality hardware and software without the lockdown. All courtesy of Microsoft.