Fear, marketing and Microsoft

Will software-piracy busts and the coming of a new millennium scare you into buying more software?

By Kaitlin Quistgaard
Published August 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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I came home to a scary letter from Microsoft on Monday. It began with news of three lawsuits Microsoft has filed against software pirates in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, and went on to describe how 30 FBI and police agents brought down a stolen software ring and sent the offenders to jail. Then it asked me -- well, actually it asked a friend's one-person company, with which I share a mailbox -- to be "part of the solution."

"Organizations like yours are their targets," it warned. "If your organization becomes a victim, you risk losing your software investment, gaining software viruses and becoming involved in the legal process associated with law enforcement raids and criminal prosecution."


But, wait a minute, how am I -- or my friend's company, for that matter -- a "target" or a "victim"? The nomenclature was confusing, but I think Microsoft was trying to be threatening and opaque at the same time. The company doesn't want to sound mean -- it couldn't very well say, "If you buy illegal software, we're going to hunt you down like a dog."

But for those who are fearful of becoming such a victim, Microsoft offered a foolproof solution: Conveniently tucked in the envelope with the warning letter was a glossy brochure for Microsoft Open License, a software licensing program for small businesses. "Open License is an easy and efficient way to help ensure your software is licensed and lawful," it explained, after reminding that, "If you're caught using illegal software, you'll jeopardize your reputation and face legal action and/or penalties." The brochure also explained something called "Upgrade Advantage," which promised to reduce the total cost of the software while providing two years' worth of upgrades.

The message was far from subtle: If you're using pirated software, even unknowingly, you'll pay the price. So, your best bet is to get legal -- and while you're at it, why not sign up for an upgrade program?


The piracy letter was sent to 28,000 Bay Area residents, a drop in the bucket compared to the 60 million customers Microsoft hopes to educate about Y2K problems. Touting a massive direct-mail program as the largest non-governmental consumer campaign in history, an Aug. 4 press release says: "The effort urges PC users to address their Y2K concerns in a timely fashion by taking advantage of the preparedness resources available at the Microsoft Y2K Web site." The release quotes President Clinton and refers to assertions of millennium-bug doom made by everyone from the U.S. Small Business Administration to Chicken Little alarmists, then advises that consumers take a "prudent approach to Y2K" -- "sooner is better than later" to rectify your system's potential problems. Iinstead of offering concrete tips, the Y2K site sends consumers to an MSN site, which guides them through software upgrade decisions.

It's been more than a year since Microsoft's Windows 98 upgrade enticed a million buyers in its first three weeks. And Windows 2000 isn't due before year's end. But who needs new products to keep up sales? Surely, the threat of lawsuits, jail time or just a total system failure will be enough to convince many consumers to upgrade their software.

Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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