The disingenuity of Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage program

Summary:The other day, I had a discussion with my four year-old son whom I believe to be a budding entomologist.  He's never happier than when bugs are crawling all over him.

The other day, I had a discussion with my four year-old son whom I believe to be a budding entomologist.  He's never happier than when bugs are crawling all over him. Spiders. Caterpillars. Beetles.  Roaches.  Doesn't matter.  He likes to catch dragonflies by their abdomens. Sometimes, I have to draw upon manliness I didn't even know I had in order not squirm right out of my skin as he asks "could you hold him while I go to the bathroom?"  The discussion was a very simple one that we've all had at one time or another (probably in different contexts) and it goes something like this: All dragonflies are insects. All insects are not dragonflies. 

But does the same hold true in a punitive context? If you steal software from me and I put you at a disadvantage as a result, does the reverse corollary hold? If you don't steal software from me and you get what you're entitled to, have I put you at an advantage? Over the thieves maybe. But overall? When I think of customer advantage programs, I generally think of programs designed to give me an advantage over other ordinary customers. Frequent flier programs for example. Memberships that get me to the front of some line. Whatever.

In a blog entry that's paired up with his eye-opener of an image gallery showing how Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy software (WGA) responds if it thinks you're running an illegitimate copy of its software, Bott says "The entire program is couched in language that would make Orwell proud." If you ask me, Bott was onto something but barely scratched the tip of the iceberg.

After his image gallery, and in considering some of the recent news about the sort of arm-twisting that Microsoft has in the works for alleged pirates, and in looking at all the coverage of the WGA program, I'm beginning to feel as though the world has been cajoled into believing that if Microsoft doesn't deprive us of something it has been giving us all along, that it's an advantage. As it turns out, the Windows Genuine Advantage program is a misnomer. Perhaps, the better choice would have been the Windows Genuine Disadvantage program (or WGD).

As the name of Microsoft's latest antipiracy initiative suggests, the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) program is clearly being positioned as something that's advantageous to customers rather than to Microsoft. In my previous conversations with Microsoft's Windows Genuine program director David Lazar regarding the WGA program, I was told of how there's a class of Windows users out there running non-Genuine versions of Windows -- ones that are sometimes corrupted with malware by the time users take delivery of their systems -- and of how the WGA program is in part designed to protect buyers from unscrupulous resellers. 

Indeed, when I buy a system that has Windows pre-installed on it, I'd like for there to be some assurance that I've taken posession of an unadulterated version of Windows -- one that is licensed to me and not surreptitiously to tens, hundreds, or thousands of other users.  But let's be honest.  While pirated copies of Windows are obviously out there, I'm willing to bet that the people profiting from them wouldn't be profiting for very long if they were selling pre-infected systems -- infections that most of today's anti-malware (which users' would be crazy not to run especially since many ISPs including AOL now give it away for free) would detect in a heartbeat.

In truth, the phrase Windows Genuine Advantage is somewhat disingenuous in that the majority of the  program's advantages actually accrue to Microsoft, not you. Let's be honest about the program that everyone knows to be an anti-piracy effort by turning the words around a bit. The word advantage implies that disadvantages exist. But, for just about every user or "pirate" of Windows, the main disadvantages --  disadvantages that Microsoft is introducing as a result of its WGA technology -- consist of deprivation of functionality that we'd otherwise be entitled to.

Microsoft's language of deprivation has been changing too, becoming more forceful. Or, at the very least, it's becoming quite clear how much leverage Microsoft is willing to apply.  For example, in the original WGA EULA that users had to agree to when their systems were somewhat disingenuously injected with WGA code by Microsoft's update service, there's a paragraph that says:

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.

Like the clever usage of the word "advantage," the assertion that the operation of your computer will not be affected in any way and the statement that automatic updates will be limited to receiving only critical security updates is a bit of a contradiction.  OK, so, literally, speaking, if my copy of Windows is suspected by WGA to be non-genuine, absolutely nothing will change. But in truth, something does change that ties back to the aforementioned deprivation. Non-critical security updates that you were once used to getting will stop flowing to you. If for example, you're running a version of Internet Explorer that has some non-critical security bugs in it, the operation of those non-critical security bugs will not be affected in any way.  They'll continue to be buggy. If you're an alleged pirate (emphasis on "alleged"), you are being placed at a disadvantage by Microsoft until you can prove otherwise. Guilty until proven innocent.

Now for the changing language and the leverage Microsoft is apparently willing to apply. WGA as a technology is integral to the Internet-based software update services that Microsoft runs.  In the original EULA, Microsoft refers to how automatic updates -- those delivered through its service -- will be the domain of constraint once it decides to start depriving alleged pirates of functionality. But there are other ways, including manual downloading, of getting updated software from Microsoft. After I alerted Microsoft to a problem with the original EULA (it referred to the wrong software components), Microsoft eventually issued a new one for users to agree to (that you probably agreed to in order to get the latest WGA fix) -- one that has some different language. For example, it says:

If you have a properly licensed copy of Windows XP installed, you receive special benefits, which are listed on the following link: http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?linkid=39157.

Special benefits? This is sort of like "advantages." What's so special about these benefits? In the history of PC software, the benefits Microsoft is speaking of are not really benefits to us, but rather obligations on behalf of the software vendor to provide licensees with important updates.  Name one software company that considers the updates it issues to legitimate licensees as a special benefit? OK. So Microsoft gives away some software like Internet Explorer and Photo Story.  Before WGA came along, these were not special benefits. The giving away of that and other software has been integral to Microsoft's business model. Now, however, it's a special benefit.

In the EULA, just before the special benefits passage, appears the following text:

This supplement also includes the Windows Genuine Advantage validation tool. The tool will check whether you have a properly licensed copy of Microsoft Windows XP (“Windows XP”) installed. Installation of the validation tool may be required in order to install certain Microsoft software or to use services such as Windows Update.

This is a bit different from the original EULA which referred only to software delivered through Automatic Updates. Now, the scope of the potential deprivation has been broadened to include certain Microsoft software. The language is changing. Microsoft is tightening the screws.  In yesterday's story headlined Microsoft to tighten the Genuine Advantage Screws, Mary Jo Foley wrote:

Come this fall, however, the Redmond software maker is planning to turn up the Genuine Advantage heat in two ways: By baking more Genuine Advantage checks directly into Windows Vista, and by taking aim at PC makers, system builders, Internet cafes and other sources of potentially pirated software...."We built a set of features and a set of functionality that is only available to genuine Windows customers," [Microsoft Platforms and Services Co-President Kevin] Johnson said. "Windows Defender, for example, the anti-spyware for Windows XP and Windows Vista, is available to genuine Windows customers. Windows Media Player 11.0, Internet Explorer 7.0, will be available for download for Windows XP customers who are genuine, and of course those are built into Windows Vista. Future updates to Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player for Windows Vista will require them to be genuine. And certainly there's some premium features built into the Windows Vista operating system that will require genuine validation as well. So we're really trying to amplify the fact that being genuine enables the set of benefits and value to access these types of features and capabilities."

 

There it is again: The language of deprivation if Microsoft's technology thinks you're a pirate, being cleverly couched in terms of the benefits if you're "genuine."  If Microsoft isn't depriving you of something, then that something is a benefit. I should try that one on my kids.  "Hey son... I know that we've been feeding you for the last 16 years no questions asked. But I just realized that I could deprive you of that food if I wanted to. However, since I'm not, you should consider that a benefit of being my son."

Although its EULAs and officials don't come right out and say it, Microsoft's official position is very simple: Make sure your copy of Windows is legitimate, or we will start cutting off your functionality.  It's not the Windows Genuine Advantage program.  WGA doesn't provide us with any additional advantage than what we're already entitled to. It's the Windows Genuine Disadvantage program. It's designed to put suspected pirates of Microsoft's software at a disadvantage.

In reality, the benefit of this program is really Microsoft's. For those users that are running allegedly pirated copies of Windows (some of which could potentially have been corrupted with malware), Microsoft could just as easily use its WGA technology to warn them that something is a amiss, what some of the negative side effects (like malware) might be, and nothing else. No deprivation. No loss of functionality. No forced incarceration into Internet Explorer 6.  At that point, it'd be up to the alleged pirate to decide whether to remedy the problem. But if Microsoft did that, then the benefits to Microsoft would be nil. What benefits am I speaking of? One need look no further back than February 2005 when News.com's Ina Fried reported:

In a presentation to financial analysts last summer, Will Poole, head of the Windows client unit, identified a reduction in unauthorized use of Windows as a key growth opportunity for the business.

Poole is currently senior vice president of Microsoft's Market Expansion Group.  Nevertheless, as I wrote back then, it's a really bad sign when a crackdown on theft is viewed as one of your company's key growth opportunities. 

I'm not questioning the right of Microsoft or any other company to deprive thieves of that which they don't deserve. But in doing so and in communicating to its customers what it's up to, it's incredibly important that technology vendors get two things right.  First, don't disingenuously veil a threat (to thieves) as a benefit to customers (non-thieves).  It's an insult to the intelligence of your customers.

Second, tread not carefully -- but perfectly -- when it comes to technologically enforcing your rights. As fellow Ed Bott pointed out in his image gallery, much is left to be desired in the WGA user experience. It pretty much assumes that if WGA singles you out as a pirate, then, short of a mismatch between a valid Windows Certificate of Authenticity and your instance of Windows (a problem it tells you how to rectify), you are a pirate and the only way out is to (1) pay Microsoft, or (2) continue to run as a deprived Windows user. As I pointed out in another post today, I believe there are circumstances under which any reasonable person (including those at Microsoft) would agree that someone is not a pirate when WGA thinks he or she is. And that's just one scenario. I'm sure there are others.

It is of course Microsoft's perogative to run its business any way it wants to. But, in an effort that's less about customer benefit and more about benefit to Microsoft, Microsoft is adding complexity and treating customers in ways that could backfire -- particularly as its business model is getting challenged by other increasingly legitimate approaches (open source and Web-based delivery of similar functionality) that are less sensitive if not completely immune to the piracy issue. 

Some day in the future, when Microsoft realizes how the WGA program failed to fulfill the supposed key growth opportunity while its disrespectful nature drove paying customers to less complex, equally productive and more flexible and forgiving solutions, someone at the Redmond company will ask what happened? The answer will be the CGA (Customer Genuine Advantage) program: an informal program that's part of a customer's relationship with any business. It doesn't matter whether you're Microsoft or the gas station around the corner. If you treat customers like dirt and insult their intelligence in an effort to solve your own problems, don't be surprised if they use their genuine right to switch providers to their advantage.

Topics: Windows

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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