For Vista, WGA gets tougher

For Vista, WGA gets tougher

Summary: For Windows Vista, Microsoft is rolling out a new version of its Windows Genuine Advantage program, complete with a new name: the Windows Software Protection Platform. This time, they mean business. Corporate customers have a new Volume Activation program, and anyone accused of piracy will be thrown into "reduced functionality" mode. Technically, it's not a kill switch, but for your Windows PC it's a near-death experience.

TOPICS: Windows

For Windows Vista, Microsoft is rolling out a new version of its Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy program, complete with a new name: the Windows Software Protection Platform. This time, they mean business.

Technically, it's not a kill switch, but it's arguably a near-death experience for your PC.Let's call it WGA Plus, shall we? The Plus means this software, which is baked into Windows Vista, is even more aggressive about detecting and blocking what it considers software that is running with unauthorized license keys or has been tampered with. And woe be unto you if you get snagged in the WGA - sorry, SPP dragnet while running Vista. If that happens on a premium version of Windows Vista, you'll first lose access to key features, including the Aero interface, ReadyBoost performance enhancements, and Windows Defender antispyware detection. Eventually, if you don't deal with the problem, the measures get more severe and you're kicked into "reduced functionality mode":

Reduced functionality mode in Windows Vista will allow the user to use the browser after the reduced functionality mode has begun. Reduced functionality mode can occur as a result of failed product activation or of that copy being identified as counterfeit or non-genuine. In most cases customers will be able to correct this situation quickly with the options provided. With the tools in place for OEMs, and small to large customers, we expect that most customers should never be affected by having a non-genuine installation.

Microsoft denies that this is a "kill switch" for Windows Vista, even giving it a separate question and answer in its mock interview announcing the program. Technically, they're right, I suppose. Switching a PC into a degraded functionality where all you can do is browse the Internet doesn't kill it; but it's arguably a near-death experience. The accompanying white paper describes the experience in more detail:

By choosing "Access your computer with reduced functionality," the default Web browser will be started and the user will be presented with an option to purchase a new product key. There is no start menu, no desktop icons, and the desktop background is changed to black. The Web browser will fully function and Internet connectivity will not be blocked. After one hour, the system will log the user out without warning. It will not shut down the machine, and the user can log back in. Note: This is different from the Windows XP RFM experience, which limits screen resolution, colors, sounds and other features. [emphasis added]

My head practically exploded when I read this sentence describing the new, improved punishment regimen: "Windows Vista will have a reduced functionality mode but one that is enhanced." Enhanced reduced functionality? Orwell would be proud.

At first glance, this program looks like WGA, repackaged and renamed. So I asked Thomas Lindeman, Microsoft's Senior Product Manager for the Software Protection Platform, to explain what's new. "The Software Protection Platform is a set of technologies we've been working on for several years," he told me. It includes "anti-tampering, anti-reverse engineering, and activation components consisting of . activation servers and a client service running on the PC." With SPP, according to Lindeman, other tools can call the same APIs, making activation and validation technologies available to any Microsoft program, even games like Flight Simulator.

With SPP, life's going to get more difficult for corporate customers using volume license keys (VLKs). Stolen VLKs have been the bane of Microsoft's existence in the XP era, because pirates use them to install copies of Windows and Office that don't have to be activated. Corporations using Vista with VLKs will have to activate them, using either a Multiple Activation Key that allows a limited number of activations, or a Key Management Service running on a Windows domain (which will require periodic reactivation). The new program is called Volume Activation 2.0, and you can read more details in this white paper).

What's most distressing about the SPP announcement is Microsoft's continued insistence that its anti-piracy tools are nearly perfect and that innocent victims never suffer from errors in their code. The press release includes this snippet, for example:

Customers will be able to easily determine the status of their Windows Vista installations. In the System Properties panel of the Windows Vista Control Panel, Windows Vista will display the genuine status of the installed copy of Windows Vista. From there, and from any screen notifying users of a failed validation, a user will be able to obtain more information on why the copy of Windows is not genuine, as well as resources for getting a genuine copy.

See that? Not whether but why the copy of Windows is not genuine. And not resources for getting assistance, but for "getting a genuine copy." In other words, paying Microsoft.

The most chilling part of SPP is its new code to detect tampering. As Lindeman explained to me, "If the Software Protection Platform determines that the core binaries of your system have been hacked with, you will get a notification that operating system has been tampered with. Reinstallation is the remedy." And the clock starts ticking immediately. When an anti-tampering warning first appears, you have three days to reinstall or otherwise fix your copy of Windows Vista or shift into reduced functionality mode.

Microsoft insists that "most customers should never be affected by having a non-genuine installation." That reassurance would be a lot more comforting if there wasn't already a solid base of failures in its current WGA program.

And in the sort of irony that invariably goes hand in hand with hubris, a wave of new problem reports have begun appearing on the official Microsoft WGA Validation Problems forum from corporate customers reporting that legitimate VLKs for Windows XP are suddenly being blocked. Read more details in this follow-up post.

Topic: Windows

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  • Just remember, Ed

    You are not the customer. Dell is the customer; you are the product.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Upgrade to Vista? NFW!!!

    So in Vista, WGA will return with sharper teeth. Well, that's just bloody awesome news ... NOT!!!

    Unless and until M$ resolves the boondoggle that WGA has become for XP, NFW will I upgrade to Vista, nor will I recommend that anyone else do so.
    • So?

      [i]Unless and until M$ resolves the boondoggle that WGA has become for XP, NFW will I upgrade to Vista, nor will I recommend that anyone else do so.[/i]

      What-[b]EVER[/b]. Eventually you'll have to replace that computer. If not because it breaks, then because your old one won't run the new MSVista-only applications.

      Get over it.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • How long?

        How long will it be before we see any Vista only apps that don't have a suitable coutnerpart for other versions? Or one that is such a "gotta have" that people will want to upgrade? I can think of only a few that I have seen that are XP only and XP has been out for many years.
        Patrick Jones
        • Just What Do You REALLY need on your computer?

          I mean really!?!? Cable and disk TV providers won't not have set-top boxes to watch TV and provide video-on-demand. And, as long as there is XP in use, there will be applications that run on it (or Win2K, too). And, there will be Linux and Mac.

          I really think what will happen is that through its efforts to enhance its OS division's bottom line, Micro$oft will open the door for the other OSes to gain enough market share to provide legitimate competition.

          And, like I've said before, corporations won't stand for having to take on more IT hassles so do not look for them to make massive investments in changing over to Vista.

          I really pity anyone who falls into the "gotta have" trap and pays for Vista because of that. They're the ones who will be duped.
      • sure

        The day I am FORCED to "upgrade" to this operating system, is the day I quit my job as a system's administrator and go back to school in something that will never make me come accross a computer ever again.

        Vista will suck THAT bad.
        • And we will wave goodbye to ya.

          Have a nice trip.
          • All Three of You, Huh

            You, yourself, and ... well, yourself.
        • Deja Moo

          [i]The day I am FORCED to "upgrade" to this operating system, is the day I quit my job as a system's administrator and go back to school in something that will never make me come accross a computer ever again.[/i]

          The nice thing about this industry is you see the same posts every time MS comes out with a new release. The nice thing about the one above is that not a single word has changed since XP was in the wings.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Wait a minute...

            What you and No_Axe are overlooking is that it's exactly this kind of bloated corporate arrogance that guarantees there'll be a change. Just as in the early 60's the American automotive industry said to itself: "small, energy efficient cars? Ha! The American consumer will take whatever we give them And we're gonna give 'em big, clunky gas guzzlers that fall apart in two years."

            Next thing you know, it's hello Volkswagen, Hello Toyota.

            You guys may be genius IT men, but this is elementary market evolution at work.
      • Then use OSS!

        "What-EVER. Eventually you'll have to replace that computer. If not because it breaks, then because your old one won't run the new MSVista-only applications."

        Why not just switch to OSS? It makes a Lot more sense, you have no stupid WGA threats hanging over your head, your computer will never go into "enhanced" "reduced functionality mode", you get a lot of cool games... If you want HL2, WoW, etc. then all you have to do is get Cedega. There's really not too much more to it. If you're not a gamer, then you have all the apps you need, WITH the OS. No more going to the local tech store to buy M$ Office, you get with your OS install (depending on your chosen distribution). If not, then all you have to do is download it. No cost (except for that of the internet - if it's too expensive, get someone with cable or DSL or something other to download and burn a cd for you), fewer bugs, fewer security vunerabilities, the works. OSS is the bane of M$, and it is what will free this world from the evil that is the M$ monopoly. LONG LIVE OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE!

      • Swim With The Sharks

        Good luck to you, Axey, Gotta, and any others that want to keep swimming with the sharks. They're getting bigger and meaner. I wouldn't bet my behind that I wouldn't get bitten. I'm staying out of the water and play with the sand puppies.
        Ole Man
  • Imagine if the WGA servers get hacked...

    Just think what could happen if the activation servers got hacked
    and someone was able to deactivate [b]every[/b] Windows key!
    Imagine the horror that would arise as most every computer was
    rendered useless!
    • John Lennon Songs

      [i]Imagine the horror that would arise as most every computer was rendered useless![/i]

      Imagine the incredible boost to Microsoft's revenues. 401(k) accounts all over the country would double overnight.

      It could be the best thing for the economy in decades.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • I seriously doubt that

        The fact is that MicroSoft would take it in the shorts. It might not be such a bad thing for the rest of us since most governments run on MicroSoft products it would virtually eliminate governmental hassles at least until MicroSoft sent out new activation keys.
  • Vista's "improved security" had better be good...

    ... because the "feature" that starts the clock ticking when your system files gets hacked will presumably start if a virus infection "hacks" the right system files.

    Can you imagine the "genuine advantage" that users will have if they get infected for some reason and then 3 days later that have to resurrect Windows?

    That should have them rolling in the aisles .......
    • I think they improved WGA yesterday

      I think MS must have done something to "improve" WGA yesterday.

      There are a lot of posts on the MS WGA Forum from corporations that have all of a sudden experienced WGA failures on their valid VLK's.

      I am glad that I only support a small number of computers, because I would hate to have to go to each one on a large campus to fix MS "improved" Advantage program.

      That's the way to rack up those brownie points Microsoft :)
  • If this really happens

    Its time to purchase the MS stock.. :) That way as they get richer from this scam we stockholders can too.

    Really this is gonna suck eggs. I did read somewhere that "ultimate" wasnt going to have the activation, wonder if thats going to change now?
    • ...then to what is it a prelude?

      What happens when other vendors get to use the APIs? Will they kill older versions of software, forcing upgrades? Will vendors put time limits on licenses? That is, will "YaddaYadda 2008" _really_be_ "YaddaYadda 2008?"
  • Software as Product

    Software the "product" has always had fuzzy edges. Those edges
    are getting sharper. License compliance is being policed to
    maintain the revenue streams and shareholder confidence. This
    represents the problem inherant in trying to maintain a
    conspicuous level of growth when you already dominate a
    market that has reached a growth threshold. Meanwhile the
    threat of MS stock slipping belw $20 and an ensuing stock dump
    looms large.

    Microsoft will always try to stay within a tolerable limit. They do
    respond to mass dissaproval. In light of this, this week's
    indignity is hardly the issue. What should be the issue, is the
    cumulative effect of all this stuff.

    In any event, the power of software is becoming clear.

    Ed intimated the other day, that the reason that OSX was not an
    option, was because Apple tied it's hardware to the OS and this
    was an anathema to the virtues of the free market. The prejudice
    is clear. It give "product" priority to the atoms over the bits.

    In requiring one to buy Apple hardware to get OSX, Apple
    projects a software prejudice, despite all the comments to the
    contrary. To buy a Apple brain, you're required to buy an Apple
    body. The irony is, that Microsoft has always imposed the
    opposite restrictions on their users. To buy a PC body, and to be
    mollified by the "choice" of different shapes and colours of
    extruded plastic, meant you were required to accept and pay for
    a Windows brain. This clearly displays Microsoft's hardware
    leverage. Which restriction is worse. You tell me.

    These champions of the free market have carried a double
    standard around the issue of choice. They gave software a pass.
    It had fuzzy edges, it was easier then. It's not so easy anymore.

    So yes this is about quality of software, first and foremost. Is
    WGA a brilliant strategy for revenue generation, or is it just
    buggy software? It doesn't really matter. This is about the fact
    that the abstractions of language are infinitely more powerful
    than the hardware object. As WGA raises some hackles and
    software's preeminence is made clear, this has to be about using
    the correct criteria to make decisions.
    Harry Bardal