In what will surely be seen as a controversial move, Microsoft this morning announced a roadmap for moving to a future in which Windows users must prove that their OSs aren't pirated before they can download any software from Microsoft.com or Windows Update. The plan, dubbed Windows Genuine Advantage, is being phased in over time, although representatives of the company told me last night that they'll continue to let even pirated Windows versions download critical security patches through Automatic Updates.
"The best way to fight software piracy is to ensure that users recognize and receive all the benefits of genuine software," Will Poole, senior vice president of the Windows Client Business, said. "When our customers participate in Windows Genuine Advantage, they will know they have easy access to updates, added-value software offerings, and other benefits of genuine Windows XP, not the uncertainty and risks of counterfeit software."
Windows Genuine Advantage has been in a pilot program since last fall, when Microsoft released Photo Story 3, its free photo slide show. Positioned as a value-added bonus for users of legitimate copies of Windows, Photo Story 3 and similar downloads have been protected by an opt-in software download mechanism in five languages--Czech, English Norwegian, Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese. Users who have opted in to the mechanism download an ActiveX control that can scan their PCs and determine whether their OSs are pirated.
David Lazar, director for Windows Genuine Advantage, told me that the pilot program was successful, with more than 60 percent of all users attempting to download such programs volunteering to go through the scanning process. As a result of this success, Microsoft is now working to implement the technology for all downloads on Microsoft.com's Download Center and Windows Update. In the first phase of the plan, which will begin on February 7, Czech, Norwegian, and Simplified Chinese users will be required to validate their Windows copies before they can download software and security patches, whereas the technology will continue to be piloted in 22 other languages worldwide. Then, sometime around mid-year, the technology will become mandatory for virtually all languages that Microsoft supports.
Windows Genuine Advantage is designed to reward owners of nonpirated Windows copies with value-added advantages for being legitimate customers. Like Product Activation, Windows Genuine Advantage seeks to curb software piracy, which various analyst groups say is rampant around the world. IDC reports that software piracy is a $30 billion problem, with pirated software accounting for about 30 percent of all software used worldwide; in the United States, that figure is 23 percent.
Unlike the way the company managed Product Activation, however, Microsoft is trying to work with the user community to ensure that there aren't any perception problems. "When we started Product Activation \[with Windows XP\], we announced and launched the technology on the same day, which was not so bright," Lazar told me. "Customers couldn't ask questions. This time, we let them opt in \[for several months\] and provide feedback. Customers who are concerned about privacy will be happy to hear that we've had a third party audit the process to make sure it's anonymous. We can't identify users who try to start a download, and we don't log IP addresses."
Microsoft is also touting various incentives in the three markets that will soon be required to participate in the program. For example, legitimate users will gain access to free, value-added software downloads such as Windows Movie Maker 2.1 and Photo Story 3. MSN Games by Zone.com will be priced at 50 percent off the regular price. And small business customers who want to purchase hosted Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) will be able to do so for 50 percent off. The company will offer other incentives as well, and Lazar told me that customers in other markets will get similar deals as the mandatory Windows Genuine Advantage program is instituted worldwide.
If a legitimate user can't download Microsoft software because he or she is unknowingly using a pirated copy of Windows, the user will be able to purchase a legitimate copy at a steep discount. Lazar said that legitimate copies of Windows can't be mistaken for pirated versions. "There were no incidences of false positives during the pilot program," he said.
Finally, users who do opt to continue pirating Windows will be able to continue downloading critical security fixes via Automatic Updates only. As a result, such systems will be less likely to be used in zombie-type Internet-based attacks, answering a key criticism of Microsoft's plan to let only legitimate users use Windows Update.
Regardless of these moves, my suspicion is that some users will be taken aback by this tactic. The online world will be in an uproar over this change by the time you read this. But after the calls to migrate to less-strictly licensed OSs such as Linux die down a few days from now, Windows users will have to start dealing with a harsh new reality. It will be interesting to see whether this change brings any long-term fallout, although, arguably, legitimate customers have nothing to fear.