Microsoft hunts black sheep in Switzerland

Since Nov. 6, Microsoft Corp.’s Swiss subsidiary has been sounding the horn for the November hunt for illegally used software. The company wants to rustle up small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are using unlicensed copies of its software. To that end it has sent 25,000 letters to companies that it suspects may have more workplace computers than paid licenses.

Microsoft bought the addresses from a marketing agency and enhanced them with internal information – such as available contract data – said Urs Wermelinger, marketing manager of Microsoft Switzerland. In the letter, the companies are asked to disclose their use of Microsoft software and their existing licenses, by the end of November. Offending users who want to repent have until this date to buy retroactive licenses. If they do, Microsoft Switzerland will refrain from taking legal action for copyright violation.

If companies do not respond to the letter, Microsoft plans to chase them by phone. Companies can be forced to reveal their license information by means of a judicial order, although this must be grounded in a reasonable suspicion.

Reactions from Microsoft partners and customers to the license offensive are mixed. On the one hand, it is normal practice for Microsoft to take up the subject twice a year with dealers, said Gerardo Raffa of the Microsoft distributor Tech Data AG. Nonetheless, he finds the current actions “a bit extreme.”

Wermelinger sees the campaign primarily as an initiative to make SME users conscious, as a matter of principle, of the problem of software licensing. Awareness of the issue is often missing, as experience in other national branches has shown, he said, citing the example of the Netherlands. A similar action was carried out there last year.

The initiative by the Swiss Microsoft subsidiary comes alongside efforts by Gates’ team to develop other revenue sources in view of a stagnating PC software market. Then there’s the open-source operating system Linux, which is poaching on Windows’ territory. Although in that case it’s only a matter of a tiny percentage of the entire market, Brian Valentine of the Windows division in Redmond, Wash., is already warning of a “threat to our core business,” and is summoning his sales force to comb the woods for companies using Linux installations, and to prevail on them to switch to Windows.

Microsoft Switzerland, in Wallisellen, Switzerland, can be reached at