In my last post about Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) anti-piracy software, I picked up (third-hand) on a hypothetical mission critical scenario where, for whatever reasons, surgeons who rely on Windows in the operating room could end up having WGA interfere with the task at hand. When I say, whatever reasons, we're hearing that hardware changes are triggering more "You could be a pirate" dialogs than they should be. On the surface, it sounds like an unlikely scenario.
Although some WGA warnings are springing up when people least expect them, my sense is that just about any hospital's IT staff would have safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. For example, let's say the computer has to be connected to the Internet during surgery, the firewall that's in between that computer and the net could be blocking all communications with Microsoft's update servers. This way, none of those nasty "You must restart your computer" messages pop up, distracting people from the task at hand. Given that WGA is becoming a known quantity, my guess is that testing a PC before any surgery (for any potential problems.. including a WGA violation) would be standard operating procedure (no pun intended).
But, let's dial it back for a second. Forget programmatic shutdowns like the way suspected pirated versions of Windows Vista will only allow access to the Internet for a short while and then log you off (a kill switch if you ask me). What are all those mission critical scenarios where the user interface (and the users) must absolutely, unequivocally be safeguarded from any distractions whatsoever? Even one of those "Virtual Memory Too Low" balloons that one occasionally gets? I'm imagining fixed blocks of time where the user of the computer (and the people who set it up) must be guaranteed that nothing is going to happen on the PC but what they want to happen. For example, in an operating room. On a field of battle. Or during a search and rescue operation.
Have you ever been nagged by one of those Windows update reminders to the point that you've mistakenly hit the wrong button and caused a reboot of your computer when you least needed that to happen? I have. It isn't hard to imagine. I hadn't considered this until I received the following letter from ZDNet reader Robert May (unedited):
Microsoft has clearly not thought through the consequences of its kill switches.You have already posted the example of the computer in use in an operating room being shutdown by Microsoft. Windows has become a tool being used worldwide for purposes never imagined by Microsoft, including many where safety concerns are of overriding importance.
Another example: Laptops have been utilized in numerically large numbers by the U.S. military in Iraq. Obviously in the midst of conducting a war one can not call a time out while one waits for Microsoft to "fix" things. I don't have the space here to go on in greater detail.
It is apparent that their has been a brawl within Microsoft as to whether they are or are not going to implement a 'kill switch". They have to be reminded that there are consequences that greatly exceed merely angry customers. Do they really want a stream of articles about Vista computers failing to perform in very critical situations solely because Microsoft wanted a greater return on their investment?
In the end, it seems to me that you and your fellow writers are under the obligation to start notifying the users of computers that their Windows Vista based computer can not be utilized for a large variety of critical tasks because of the risks associated with Vista deciding, unreliably, to disable their computers.
Note: I am not a Microsoft "hater". I want Microsoft to succeed as a corporation, but I do not want to see their success being based upon placing human beings at risk. They have a real problem when it comes to pirated copies of their software, but not all solutions to this problem are without serious drawbacks.
Without trying to sensationalize the WGA story, I think Bob letter really cuts to that more important point of whether or not the operating system should be making any decisions about what happens on or to the user interface. Given an operating system that "authority" makes it less predictable in mission critical situations where the users can't afford to be interrupted in the middle of whatever they're doing, even for the most innocuous of questions. A quick search of the Net reveals some advice for how to suppress some messaging by adjusting some of Windows' registry settings. It's for the embedded version of Windows but I can see in regedit that the keys are in the regular version of XP as well. What I don't know is how well this works at overriding everything that you might want to override (including WGA notifications) or do you have to access other keys for that (there's plenty of advice on how to suppress WGA circulating around the Net).
In the bigger picture, Robert's note cuts to a bigger challenge for Microsoft. As it seeks to clamp down on piracy, will some customers seek alternative options over which they have far more control over the operating environment (for example, desktop Linux), and could that investigation lead to other pilots that cause some organizations to reconsider their Windows investments altogether. Fortunately for Microsoft, attitudes amongst the corporate folks about desktop Linux are not that positive. This week, at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, I've been asking attendees about whether, in their minds, desktop Linux is a contender or a non-starter. I caught some of these responses on tape. For the most part, the answer has been non-starter.