Busted! What happens when WGA attacks

Summary:When Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage software kicks in and identifies your copy of Windows as "non-genuine," what happens next? On the surface, at least, Microsoft is all tea and sympathy: "You may be a victim of software counterfeiting," says the official message that takes over the Windows startup screen. But that's a funny way to treat a victim, because everything in the WGA experience is intended to get you to open your wallet and pay for a new product key and Windows CD, even if you already own a perfectly legal license. I've got all the details here.

When Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage software kicks in and identifies your copy of Windows as "non-genuine," what happens next? On the surface, at least, Microsoft is all tea and sympathy: "You may be a victim of software counterfeiting," says the official message that takes over the Windows start up screen. But that's a funny way to treat a victim, The entire program is couched in language that would make Orwell proud. because everything in the WGA experience is intended to get you to open your wallet and pay for a new product key and Windows CD, even if you already own a perfectly legal license.

With Microsoft’s assistance, I’ve just installed two illegal copies of Windows XP on a test system here. The idea was to show Windows customers what the WGA experience is really like. (I’ve documented the experience with a series of screenshots and accompanying notes in this image gallery. I encourage you to see for yourself exactly what happens if WGA reaches out and touches you.)

What I found made me more sure than ever that Microsoft is just plain out of touch with what its customers are experiencing. Here are some conclusions I’ve come to:

  • You’re presumed guilty. Although the web pages ooze with concern for the poor “victims,” the actual text is cold-blooded. Microsoft acknowledges that many people have legitimate licenses but end up with bootleg copies of Windows installed because a repair shop or a friend does them a “favor.” But the utility to replace the bogus product key with a legitimate one is buried on the website. It’s literally the last option on a list of six choices.
  • It’s all about the Benjamins. The most prominent element in the WGA Notification screen is the Buy Now button. You’re encouraged to whip out your credit card and send Microsoft (or one of its partners) $149 to get a new product key and a new CD. Even if you click the tiny see all options link to see what other choices are available to you, three of the six options involve handing over money.
  • Help is not on the way. A Windows customer who sees this message is likely to be scared, confused, and angry – or maybe all three. But there’s no easy way to get help. The Contact Us link leads to a generic Microsoft page. There’s nary a phone number to be found. The only specific help is the WGA Validation Problems forum, where the list of scared, confused, and angry customers is growing daily.
  • It inspires confusion and uncertainty. Yesterday, Microsoft told me my installation of Windows XP was Genuine, and I was entitled to full support. Today, I’m a possible victim of piracy, and I’m cut off from the resources that were available to me yesterday. What changed? Who knows? What about my other “genuine” Windows copies? Are they going to suddenly be flagged as illegal?

The entire program is couched in language that would make Orwell proud. I’d love to spend an hour in Redmond, locked in a room with the WGA team, so I could explain exactly how wrong their approach is. If I had my way, I’d tear down every existing web page and start over. Here’s a hint: Stop treating every customer as if they were a thief.

Topics: Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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