Is Microsoft forcing Windows users to install and test pre-release software?

Summary:The recent controversy over Microsoft's usage of Windows Update to install anti-piracy software that apparently phones home to Microsoft's servers over the  Internet on a daily basis has drawn a poorly constructed response (I analyze it here) from the company that is at best mistaken or incomplete and at worst, disingenuous about how the software installs itself and works.

The recent controversy over Microsoft's usage of Windows Update to install anti-piracy software that apparently phones home to Microsoft's servers over the  Internet on a daily basis has drawn a poorly constructed response (I analyze it here) from the company that is at best mistaken or incomplete and at worst, disingenuous about how the software installs itself and works. My sense is that it's the former and that someone at Microsoft with a keen technical eye wasn't given an opportunity to compare the prepared statement with the actual user experience.  The response and the anti-piracy software involved -- Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) software -- raises another very serious question about how Microsoft is apparently beta testing its software on our production systems. 

According to the WGA End User License Agreement (EULA):

This software is a pre-release version of the software intended to update the technological measures in Windows XP which are designed to prevent unlicensed use of Windows XP.......This software is a pre-release version.  It may not work the way a final version of the software will.  We may change it for the final, commercial version.  We also may not release a commercial version.

When used with the word "software," the term "pre-release" is invariably taken by the marketplace to mean that the software is still in a test mode and having its bugs worked out.  In Microsoft's recently released prepared statement, we are again reminded of the pre-release nature of the software when Microsoft says:

As a result of customer concerns around performance, we are changing this feature to only check for a new settings file every 14 days. This change will be made in the next release of WGA. Also, this feature will be disabled when WGA Notifications launches worldwide later this year.

In reducing the frequency with which WGA checks Microsoft's servers for a new "settings file," Microsoft may indeed be responding to customer concerns about the WGA's behavior.  But, by saying that the feature will be disabled all together when WGA launches worldwide later this year, it seems pretty clear to me that all the "checking" going on -- be it every day or every 14 days -- is a pretty good stress test to make sure the software works before rolling it out worldwide. 

But what troubles me, and what should perhaps trouble you, is the way we may have ended up as guinea pigs for testing Microsoft's pre-release software.  As you can see from my aforelinked analysis, one of the WGA components that Microsoft is loading onto end users' systems through its Windows Update service is, contrary to what Microsoft says, installed without the end user's consent.  Normally, the installation of pre-release software on my system is up to me.  But, based on my own tests, that's not the case here.  But even more troubling is the leverage that Microsoft seems to be applying if you don't install the pre-release software.  Also in the EULA is the following statement:

If the software detects you are not running a genuine copy of Windows XP, the operation of your computer will not be affected in any way.  However, you will receive a notification and periodic reminders to install a genuine licensed copy of Windows XP. Automatic Updates will be limited to receiving only critical security updates.

In other words, even if we are running legitimate copies of Windows, Microsoft appears to be holding the updates that we're entitled to as ransom unless we install the pre-release software.  What's with that?

Topics: Tech Industry

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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