Descent into Microsoft (Part 1)

Fake News written by Jon Splatz on Sunday, February 7, 1999

from the Fighting-The-Empire dept.

[Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of articles about Jon Splatz's adventures in obtaining an elusive Windows refund. In this first installment, Splatz visits CompUSSR to buy a new computer system. Unfortunately, it comes bundled with Windows 98... So, sit back, relax, grab a beer, and follow along as Jon tackles CompUSSR salesmen, his fears of inadequacy, and the Microsoft End User License Agreement.]

I feel like one of those Everest climbers. The mountain is in sight, but I can't quite make it to the base camp because my pack mule keeps throwing me off. I suspect that my sherpa guide is stealing my money and food.

My endeavor for the past two weeks has been to obtain a refund for the unused copy of Windows 98 that came pre-installed on my new computer from CompUSSR. Sitting here in the basement of Humorix World Headquarters, clutching my End User License Agreement, I can see the summit of Mt. Everest -- reclaiming my US$90 Microsoft Tax.

So far, however, my mission has been an utter failure. I'm stuck here with this pile of worthless CompUSSR and Microsoft promotional material that came with my new system. It mocks me. The coupon for a free copy of Microsoft Bob 99 stares at me like some evil Sasquatch monster who inhabits the Himalayas.

The weight of the world, of Microsoft's monopoly, of the shoddy state of the computer industry, bears down upon my soul. I feel like destroying my computer and digging out my dusty old solar calculator and my father's antique slide-rule.

Is my goal of climbing Mt. Everest too lofty? Perhaps, I ponder, climbing to the summit of the trash heap behind my apartment complex would be a more realistic endeavor. Or climbing the stairs to the top floor of Humorix World Headquarters. My faith in geekdom wavers, the pioneer spirit in me falters. I should just forget about this whole crusade and watch a nice movie on TV about mountain climbing.

But, alas, as a geek and a pundit, I can't give up! I didn't give up before when I was fired from ColdWired, did I? Now I have a cushy job writing articles for this so-called Humorix site. I can beat Microsoft yet! Move over Microsoft Empire, Jon Splatz is here! Get ready for me, Mt. Everest!

This whole adventure began two weeks ago when I was fired from my job at ColdWired Magazine. I was desperate for a soapbox where I could express my opinions and get paid at the same time. Meanwhile, the Humorix site was desperate for a pundit/social commentator of its own. If having a pundit worked for Slashdot, the Humorix staff reasoned, it could work for them. I was hired.

Unfortunately, there was one minor problem. I'd never heard of Linux. Obviously, I wasn't technically qualified to write for a Linux humor site (although, frankly, I don't see what's so "humorous" about half of the stuff that James Baughn creep writes). I might make some dumb mistake and refer to the "Linux kernel" as some guy named Linus in the military. I'd already appeared as a fool in other publications far too many times.

But, yet, I have credentials and experience. I'm a professional after all, who has written for ColdWired, Stale, and several Whiff-Davis publications. I could bring in a fresh perspective; something the geeks here at Humorix don't have. I also have a life.

So, I thought, I'm not completely incompetent. I can write fine articles for Humorix. Of course, I would have to learn how to use this Linux thing. I needed to summon all the geek strength in me. But I could do it.

Just one thing stood in my way: Murphy's Law. My apartment building had been struck by two violent bolts of lightning the night before. One zapped the phone lines, nearly frying my modem. It didn't matter much, though, because the second bolt caused a major power spike. My old Macintosh computer actually exploded. The $9.95 surge protector I had bought recently from Claw-Mart was no match for Murphy's fury.

I asked the Humorix staff for help. Their advice was conflicting, full of techno-babble and jargon usually only found in university CS classes. "Get a clone and install Linux in a partition within 1024 cylinders..." "Don't forget to run XF86Setup to configure the X Window System, otherwise the system could overclock the frequency of your monitor and force it to blow up in your face, wouldn't that be a shame..." "Bid on a new computer from eBay... make sure it has 1MB of L2 pipeline burst cache and a 128 bit AGP x2 video card..." Blah blah blah.

I wish I still had my old Macintosh. The Humorix dweebs kept pressing me to buy, beg, rent, or steal an x86 clone. I was about to enter the insecure World of Wintel. I collected all the strength I could muster, and pressed on.

Not knowing much about PCs, I decided to visit the only computer store in my town, CompUSSR. In hindsight, this was a terrible mistake. I found out later that, as the store's name suggests, CompUSSR was founded by Soviets who had fled Russia when Communism collapsed. It shows.

Upon entering the store, I immediately went to the customer support desk to ask about Linux. Maybe they could help me; the Humorix staff sure wasn't very helpful. For all I knew, it may be possible to run this Linux thing on a Macintosh.

My hopes were shattered when I saw the employee at the help desk. He wore a red uniform, sporting an oversized CompUSSR logo (a hammer and sickle superimposed on a dollar sign) and a name tag displaying "Mikhail" on his chest. He looked like he could have played the part of Joseph Stalin in one of those cheesy 1970s-era B-movies.

"I need some of your expert analysis," I said, trying to be respectful.
"For whom?" the Stalin-like figure asked.
"For me."
"We don't do that."
"What do you mean you don't do that? You sell computers, don't you?"
"Yes, but we don't offer psychological counseling."
"Argh! I want Linux on it."
"I thought you said it was for you? How come you keep changing your story? If it's for Linux, why don't you send him to a doctor? In fact, why are you here? We sell computers here."
"I know! I want one."
"Why didn't you say so? What kind do you want?"
"I don't know. I guess one that runs Linux."
"What's your crazy friend got to do with anything?"
"No, no! Linux the operating system..."
"At CompUSSR all of our computers include an operating system. Unlike most stores, we offer you a choice. You can choose Windows 3.11, Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows NT."
"No, no, I don't want one."
"Well then what are you doing wasting my time? I think you are the crazy one, not this Linux friend of yours."
"No, I don't want a Windows operating system!"
"Fine, you can just delete it and install whatever operating system you want for your crazy friend Linux."
"Great, just give me a computer and I will be on my way."
"Make up your mind you filthy capitalist before I call the State Sec ...erm, I mean, the police."
"I want to talk to the store manager!"
"Fine. Oh wait, sorry. He is vacationing in Siberia with family. Next customer, please!"

Okay, so Plan A didn't work out. Maybe Plan B would. James Baughn, my new boss, said he would loan me one of his old Slushware Linux CDs (or was it Slackword? Slackware?) when I purchased a new system. All I had to do was buy a PC, delete whatever OS was pre-installed on it, pop in the CD, and install Linux. Simple.

I didn't like CompUSSR, but since it's the only computer store in town, and since I was already there, I decided to look at their systems. I wandered to the back of the store and looked at CompUSSR's long display of demo computers. Each system had its own CompUSSR brand name: "The Sputnik", "The Kremlin", "The Orient Express", etc. Beside each system was a sheet listing specs and features -- in Cyrillic and English. To me, though, the English part looked an awful lot like Greek; I had no clue what all this techspeak meant. The only thing I could understand was the price.

I thought about leaving the store, picking up a copy of "Wintel Shopper" magazine from the adjoining bookstore, and buying a computer through mail order. At least I wouldn't have to deal with anyone like Mikhail.

However, one CompUSSR salesman, Yuri, had other plans. He had been watching me look over the demo computers. When I was preparing to leave, he jumped on me like a hawk. "The Kremlin II is an excellent value," he yelled. I tried to escape from the salesman, but he kept bombarding me with promotional nonsense.

"What's so great about the Kremlin II?" I asked, playing along until I could find an opportunity to escape.
"See the sticker? Intel Inside. You can't beat that."
"But all your computers appear to have Intel chips."
"This Kremlin II is still the best value per ruble, er, I mean US dollar."
"What's so great about it?
"See the deluxe triple-layered lead-coated case? Heavy, but it could withstand a small nuclear blast."
"Uh, nice." I was trying to find a diversion, but to no avail. I usually carry around a fake beeper that I can set off by scratching my hip. Unfortunately, I had left my Divert-O-Beeper(tm) in my apartment.

"What's your most powerful system?" I asked, again feigning interest.
"Ah, you mean the Sputnik 1000DL-5 Deluxe with 400 MMXYZ Intel Celery-on chip, 64 bytes memory, built-in 5-1/4 inch drive, color video card..." He kept spouting off meaningless rhetoric about the system. Did the salesman understand what he was saying? I know I didn't.
"...in comparison," he continued, "The Kremlin II Deluxe has 333 MMXYZ Intel Hexium chip, 48 bytes memory..." Blah blah blah.

This continued for over an hour. I tried several times to fake a diversion, but the sales droid pressed on relentlessly.

Eventually, I gave in. CompUSSR had scored another paying customer. I wrote a check for $999.95 for a "Kremlin II Deluxe" system with 15 inch "Mir"-brand monitor. My bank account was a little low, but I knew my first Humorix paycheck would be arriving soon. I then carted the bulky system back to my apartment.

I found myself back at the customer service desk of CompUSSR the next morning. My new system wasn't working; it kept giving me these strange errors (in Cyrillic, no less!) when I turned it on.

Mikhail was unhappy to see me. "This box doesn't work," I complained. "I want it fixed."

"Sorry, I can't help you. I don't have any veteranarian experience. Sergei might, since he worked with animals on a collective farm in Ukraine, but he won't be in until noon.

"No, you [expletive]! This computer I bought yesterday doesn't work."

"See our policy?" He pointed to a large sign behind him painted in giant red letters that said, "No returns, no refunds, all sales are final. Unattended children will be sold as slaves."

We argued back and forth for several minutes. Finally, remembering something I once saw on a police show, I blurted out, "Look here Commie boy, I'm an agent for the INS, EPA, ATF, FBI, and CIA. The package this computer came in contains several dozen breeding pairs of dangerous Asian long-horned beetles. This is a very serious situation. I'd be willing to overlook this little, ah, problem if you'd destroy the package and give me a new working computer system."

The CompUSSR weasel finally gave in. "Alright, we'll exchange it for another system." A few minutes later, I left the store lugging the hundred pound system to my car.

I cleared the junk off the kitchen table in my apartment. After unpacking the new machine, I plugged in all the peripherals, and turned it on. I was greeted by the Windows 98 splash screen and then this dire message composed by the Microsoft legal department:

"WARNING! READ CAREFULLY -- By copying or using this software product, you (the "Supplicant") agree to be bound by the terms of this Microsoft End-User License Agreement. If you do not agree to the terms of this License, promptly return the unused software product to the place from which you obtained it for a full refund."

As I sat there pondering these ominous words, the phone rang. It was James Baughn, my boss, congratulating me on my first Humorix article, the "Linux Revolution" book review. While Baughn was in a good mood, I asked about my paycheck. "When do I get it?"

"Uh, well, uh... hmmm... there seems to be some kind of misunderstanding," he stuttered. "Humorix is strictly non-profit. There is no paycheck. Didn't I tell you that? We hired you so you could get back on your feet from that terrible ColdWired fiasco, rebuild your reputation, and then get a real job somewhere else. I thought we had an agreement about this. Sorry..."

I hung up on the greedy, ego-maniacal twerp. I just spent a thousand dollars on a computer I needed for my new job that doesn't pay anything! I still had a few thousand dollars saved in the bank, but it couldn't last very long.

An idea hit me. I couldn't return my computer now, but I could get a refund for Windows. After all, this Linux thing was a replacement for Windows, right? I could learn Linux, get some much-needed money back, and hopefully use my column on Humorix to rebuild my reputation as a pundit and geek.

My mission to obtain a Windows refund had begun. I was staring at the base of Mt. Everest. I knew I had a lot of obstacles to overcome, but I could make it. I could beat the system!

What a fool I was.

Return soon for Part 2 of Descent into Microsoft, where I encounter... Well, you'll see.

Contact me at jonsplatz [at] i-want-a-website [dot] com

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