We often talk about the rights of software buyers, but, at least according to software publishers, there is no such thing. One never buys software, they tell us; one only licenses it. Why is that? A gripe from a reader we'll call Mr Low, in honour of his current mood, may provide a clue. Mr Low works for a system integration house that provides custom solutions to several Fortune 100 clients. This year Mr Low recommended Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 as the database for some intranet applications several clients were about to deploy. One of the reasons for this choice was the Internet Connector licensing option, which, at a suggested price of $US2999 per server, allowed an unlimited number of Internet or intranet clients to access the SQL Server database.
"The flat fee made it much less confusing," Mr Low says. "We even called Microsoft in April just to make sure we understood the terms correctly and were told yes, what we were planning to do was fine."
However, one day in September, Mr Low was surfing the SQL Server Web site and happened to see a notice about Internet Connector that stated: "Internal, database-driven Web applications [intranets] now require the purchase of Client Access Licences [CALs]." Mr Low called Microsoft again and learned that as of July 1, the terms of Internet Connection 6.5 had changed and now only allowed unlimited Internet, not intranet, connections.
Mr Low found this rather disturbing.
"When I asked how we were supposed to know about this change, I was told I should read the licensing agreement that comes with every copy of every product I buy to be safe," Mr Low says. "Well, I guess I'll tell my client - who's in the middle of a 2000-seat NT Server roll-out - to open every box and have the lawyers check to ensure that something hasn't changed between boxes."
As Internet Connector is itself only a licence, not a software program, Mr Low thought it strange that Microsoft could change the terms without releasing a new version of it or SQL Server.
"If Microsoft wants to change this when SQL Server 7.0 is ready to ship, no problem - our clients can decide whether to upgrade," Mr Low says. "But to change the licence without changing the product seems a lot like a bait-and-switch scheme to me."
Microsoft says the change was necessary due to the shifting dynamics of how companies are using the Web.
"Since we introduced this last year, we've seen a shift from customers publishing static Web pages, where counting log-ons was difficult, to a situation where more traditional business applications are being deployed in Web-based form," says Doug Leland, a product manager for SQL Server. "When companies that already had CALs for their client/server applications wanted to use them on an intranet, we originally had to tell them to also buy the Internet Connector."
SQL Server customers with sufficient CALs for an intranet now do not need to buy an Internet Connector for each server, Leland says.
"This ends up being a cleaner solution for everyone, and in many cases buying the client licences is going to be cheaper than having to pay almost $US3000 per server," Leland adds. Companies that purchased the Internet Connector before July 1 and have the licence permitting unlimited intranet access can continue to use it that way.
But what about those companies, such as Mr Low's clients, that may discover they have to buy CALs on top of the Internet Connector licences for which they already paid?
"That is an unfortunate situation, and in those cases where it becomes a customer satisfaction issue, Microsoft would make good on it," Leland says. "They should contact their sales representative, because we want to make sure the customers get the right deal."
But should customers who thought they had the right deal now have to depend on the good graces of a software publisher who decided to change the rules midstream?