International computer software giant Microsoft has apologised to purchasers of its Windows 95 product who may have been misled by an offer of free Internet access.

"The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has today accepted court enforceable undertakings from Microsoft which ensures that these customers will be able to access the offer as promised," ACCC Chairman, Professor Allan Fels said.

"In a recent promotion Microsoft offered 20 hours of free Internet access to purchasers of Windows 95 software or the Windows 95 Upgrade. The offer was made on point of sale advertising and on the inside of a sticker attached to the packaging.

"But important restrictions applying to the offer were not obvious until after purchase. They included a condition that the offer was only available to holders of a Visa or Mastercard credit account. Additionally, the sticker concealed an expiry date but the offer was still being promoted in retail stores across Australia well after that date had passed. "The ACCC claims that the Microsoft promotion may have misled consumers, in breach of the Trade Practices Act. "As a result of the ACCC action Microsoft will honour all claims for free Internet access from consumers who bought the product displaying the offer up to and including 31 December 1996 irrespective of the date of purchase and irrespective of whether the consumer holds a Visa or Mastercard credit account. Microsoft will also review product registrations and write to those purchasers who may have been misled.

"Microsoft has notified all 3,700 distributors and resellers of Microsoft products in Australia to remove the promotional sticker and all promotional material relating to the offer as soon as possible.

"Microsoft has published apologies in its own Communique and Sales Partner magazines and on its Internet site at Microsoft has further agreed to improve its complaint handling procedures and instigate a more comprehensive trade practices compliance programme for its management, sales and marketing staff. "This incident serves to warn businesses that while advertising is essential to promote products, it is a double-edged sword if not properly managed. In this case, all material conditions of the promotional offer to consumers should have been available to consumers before, and not after, their decision to purchase the product. "The ACCC is pleased at the prompt corrective action taken by Microsoft, and with the initiatives it has taken to ensure future compliance with the Trade Practices Act.

"But this case illustrates that even where court action is not necessary, the cost of making redress in such cases is embarrassing, expensive and it diverts businesses from their corporate objectives". Affected consumers should call Microsoft toll free on 1800 247 756 for full details.