Microsoft Learns from WGA Mistakes, But Is It Enough?

A posting to the Microsoft Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) Web site last week includes a veiled apology for problems users have had with the over-zealous antipiracy feature, which is now included in all modern Windows versions. WGA is the technology in Windows that detects whether the underlying system is legitimate (i.e., acquired legally by a paying customer) and responds accordingly. When everything is working right, a legally acquired Windows version should work normally. Otherwise, it will slip into a reduced functionality mode that makes the system essentially unusable as a mainstream OS.

That's the best-case scenario. But as I and many other legitimate Windows users have experienced, WGA doesn't always work as intended. Consider the particularly infamous August 2007 WGA outage, during which Microsoft says "fewer than 12,000 systems" failed a WGA validity check and were thus marked as counterfeit, preventing them from downloading anything other than noncritical security fixes from Microsoft.com. No customers were forced into reduced functionality mode during that event, Microsoft claims.

This incident gained a lot of press for obvious reasons. But it's just the most high-profile example of the perils of WGA and antipiracy technology in general. How often are legitimate Windows users told by the system that their OS isn't legitimate, just because they made a software change or had the gall to reinstall? Heck, it happened to me.

You know, the more I think about this, the more outraged I get, and I'm surprised this hasn't generated more of a backlash against the company. The root of this problem, of course, is that Microsoft has such a lock on its core markets that it must now seek to grow Windows in more creative ways. That includes such things as $3 versions of Windows and Office for the China market and an in-progress low-cost version of Windows for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO notebook, a machine that costs less than $200 and targets children in developing countries. Keep the crack-dealer comparisons hushed, people.

Microsoft's strategy also includes going after software pirates. And according to the software giant, this strategy is paying off. The company says that Windows sales were up 20 percent in the last quarter, a time period during which actual PC sales were only up about 15 percent. The discrepancy, Microsoft says, is due in part because of pirated Windows versions being converted to the real thing via WGA. In such cases, pirates (or the innocent) are able to purchase a virtual license to Windows so they can legitimatize their system.

In a traditional business, product sales grow because customers find the product or a recent upgrade desirable or because the company begins selling those products in new markets. But as good as is, say, Windows Vista, it's pretty clear that it's not so much better than its predecessor that consumers or businesses are racing out to purchase it immediately. Thus, as the upgrade market is technically slowing, Windows sales are still up, thanks in part to this new focus on piracy.

Of course, Microsoft should go after software pirates. And I understand why it changed Windows licensing with Vista, as most piracy on past versions was due to people swapping volume license keys over the Internet. Fair enough. But technologies like WGA put the onus of validation on users--or, in the corporate world, on already overworked IT staff--and that's no way to treat legitimate customers.

Put simply, I'm happy that Windows sales are up: It's a good product that deserves to be successful. I just wish Microsoft could make that happen without harming its existing customers on what appears to be a fairly regular basis.

Link: Learning and Improving (WGA blog) http://blogs.msdn.com/wga/archive/2007/11/20/learning-and-improving.aspx

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