Virtualization and confusing array of Vista legal restrictions to haunt Microsoft and users alike

Virtualization and confusing array of Vista legal restrictions to haunt Microsoft and users alike

Summary: According to fellow ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley, Vista's licensing is confusing enough. She literally ends up screaming for help.

TOPICS: Virtualization

According to fellow ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley, Vista's licensing is confusing enough. She literally ends up screaming for help. But, over at SecurityFocus, Scott Granneman is drawing attention to some of the more objectionable (and seemingly arbitrary) terms in Microsoft's End User License Agreement for the new version of Windows. In his analysis, there are some dots that remain unconnected. So, in the process of connecting them for you, I'll spotlight a very large and looming problem that Microsoft will have to face in the years to come.

Of the clauses Granneman covers, the best he needed to save for last (in his mind) is the one where Windows Vista can only be legally transferred to another computer one time. After that, you need to acquire another copy. There was a fair amount of flame traffic on the Web after news of that restriction first appeared.  The official language in Vista's EULA goes like this:

Software Other than Windows Anytime Upgrade. The first user of the software may reassign the license to another device one time. If you reassign the license, that other device becomes the "licensed device."

Larger enterperises won't feel the pinch of this proviso as much as the smaller businesses and consumers who don't have volume agreements with Microsoft will. I also suspect that this rule has more to do with the short-comings of how Microsoft's product activation infrastructure works more than anything else. Today, if you legitimately transfer your copy of Windows to another system and Windows thinks it has been pirated, it takes a call to Microsoft to flip whatever bits have to be flipped on the Microsoft side in order for that copy of Windows to stop thinking it has been pirated. At the end of the day, it comes down to a judgement call on behalf of the person at Microsoft who takes that call. He or she must decide how truthful you are being and any time that sort of subjectivity exists within the context of a revenue stream (and knowing how clever pirates can be), there's little question as to whether this is a fool-proof process. It isn't.

The one system move rule eliminates the subjectivity. Not only will it force some users to go out and buy new copies of Windows, it will save Microsoft money on the support side. Calls to its support personnel, for example, won't take nearly as long once it has been determined that "the customer" is attempting to make a second or third transfer. Where things could get tricky is when it's not a transfer, but rather a reload into an existing system that has undergone (or routinely undergoes) major hardware upgrades. Even without a reload, there have already been reports of how hardware upgrades to existing systems are awakening Microsoft's anti-piracy technology (the Windows Genuine Advantage software), and mistakenly tricking it into thinking Windows has been pirated.

It my mind, this raises the question of what exactly constitutes a new system? When the parts are in a new chassis? Or, when they're moved to a new motherboard? As it turns out, my colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes has the gorey details on just exactly how Microsoft scores hardware changes in its attempt to detect potential piracy. Sure, the new rule gives pirates less wiggle room. But, since there continues to be no standard way of uniquely identifying "a system" (TPMs were supposedly the utopia for this but they're not in very system). At some point, Microsoft's support personnel will be back to making judgement calls. More than likely though, it'll be fewer of them. Incidentally, over on Adrian's blog, he's running a poll to see how often ZDNet's readers have had to reinstall Windows. At last count 47 percent have had to reinstall Windows two or more times with 31 percent saying they've never reinstalled.

I, for one, was less interested in Granneman's discussion of system reassignment and more interested in Microsoft's rules regarding the usage of Vista with virtualization technologies like VMware's VMWare Workstation.  

The first relevant exerpt Granneman points to is found in the EULAs for the Home Basic and Home Premium versions of Windows Vista and it says:

USE WITH VIRTUALIZATION TECHNOLOGIES. You may not use the software installed on the licensed device within a virtual (or otherwise emulated) hardware system.

It's a humdinger given the rising importance and benefits of virtualization technology, even to users of consumer versions. My next system, whenever I get it, will start fully virtualized. Looking out a bit, Vista will very likely be in use by many millions of people in the 2010 to 2012 timeframe and my guess is that the many benefits of virtualization technology will have trickled down to the consumer level by then. What I mean by that is that the benefits will be easily realized by consumers who opt to take advantage of them. Today, you need to be a bit of a rocket scientist to use virtual machines (VMs). By 2010, it'll be child's play and the benefits of using VMs will far outweigh the downsides of not. But, if the EULA prevents usage and Microsoft enforces its EULA through its technology, many Vista users may find themselves on the outside looking in.  

Knowing how virtualization technology works, it's easy to see why Microsoft would want to put a clause like this in Vista's EULA. One of the key advantages of virtualization is connected to the way that it converts an entire system into a file (or a series of files) that lives on a hard drive. A file that can be copied. An, in fact, that's one reason to virtualize a system. Let's say the hardware is having a problem and has to be fixed or replaced. Today, the headaches in moving all of your personalizations from one system to the next make for an aggravating excercise in futility. There are all sorts of utilities for making the move and even Microsoft is coming up with some tools. But in the end, not everything makes it. Particularly little nook and cranny stuff that's very important to end-users.  But when your entire computer is contained within a VM, you just copy the VM from one computer to another, and voila: you have your entire system exactly the same way you had it before on the previous computer. 

So far so good. Unfortunately, what's good for the goose (you) is also good for the gander (the pirates). Virtualization technology means that a pirate can encapsulate a clean, pristine version of Windows into a VM and then make as many copies of it as he or she wants. Today, most VM technologies pass through unique identifying attributes of the underlying hardware to the virtual machine. So, today, a movement of a VM from one system to another will very likely trigger Microsoft's anti-piracy software into action. But, my guess is that tomorrow, especially given the open source nature of certain VM technologies like Xen, those sort of system sensitivities will be ameliorated in some abstracting layer of virtualization technologies. In fact, to realize the benefits of virtualization technology, it has to be this way. For example, I should be able to move a VM from an Intel-based computer to an AMD one without running into any hitches whatsoever.  

So, VMs are (or will be) a technological loophole to all the hard work that Microsoft is putting into protecting its intellectual property (IP) -- a loophole that the software giant probably isn't sure what to do about. In other words, there's no easy technological answer. Short of technologicial answers to IP protection, the only choice for a vendor to fall back on is to encode "protection" into its license agreements. Do you need further evidence of the wrestling match that lies ahead when it comes to Microsoft and virtualization? Granneman points to that as well. As it turns out, you are allowed to use virtualization technologies with the more expensive versions of Windows Vista like Windows Vista Ultimate (draw your own conclusions as to why). But, judging by the following clause, even that poses problems for Microsoft:

USE WITH VIRTUALIZATION TECHNOLOGIES. You may use the software installed on the licensed device within a virtual (or otherwise emulated) hardware system on the licensed device. If you do so, you may not play or access content or use applications protected by any Microsoft digital, information or enterprise rights management technology or other Microsoft rights management services or use BitLocker. We advise against playing or accessing content or using applications protected by other digital, information or enterprise rights management technology or other rights management services or using full volume disk drive encryption.

For starters, note the restriction on "licensed device." It's legal language that theoretically prevents virtualization users from taking full advantage of virtualization technologies (the ability to move VMs around), even if it's for legitimate reasons.  But, based on the language discussed earlier, this was almost to be expected.  What comes next has one of Microsoft's fears (in my opinion) written all over it. 

Microsoft is the purveyor of digital rights management (DRM) technologies. In its most common usage today, DRM is copy protection technology that's designed to prevent the piracy of copyrighted content like music and video. In terms of computers (as opposed to portable playback devices like Apple's iPod or Microsoft's soon-to-be released Zune), DRM is what prevents content from being played back or viewed on anything but the right software (eg: Windows Media Player or iTunes) on "authorized" systems. But, once an entire system can be virtualized into copyable files the way they can with commonly available virtualization technologies, then Microsoft has a new problem. That's because instead of distributing illegal copies of the actual content (like what was done with Bittorrent or Napster), pirates can simply distribute entire collections of content inside of freely copyable "pre-authorized" VMs. Five years from now, PCs will be powerful enough to support hundreds if not thousands of VMs which means from the pirate's point of view, a VM could easily contain one album, one playlist, or even one song. 

The net result is a complete end-run around all that DRM, as we know it today, has to offer. The reason this is a senstive situation for Microsoft (as well as any other purveyor of DRM technology) is that an entire business strategy -- one that involves promises of protection to the entertainment confab -- falls apart if it can't guarantee that protection.  So, for now, at the very least, one way to try to guarantee it is to erect legal barriers to using "copy" technology like virtualization with supposedly uncopyable content. 

Next up, I'll do a 100,000-foot take on the complex technological and legal labyrinth that's being woven here.

Topic: Virtualization

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  • Gordian knot

    You're making this much too hard. Yes, the equitable solution is going to involve hard choices and difficult trade-offs, but "the equitable solution" has nothing to do with the actual situation. Microsoft is calling the shots, and they're not stupid.

    That means that all of those "hard choices" and "difficult trade-offs" reduce to "what is good for Microsoft." That's a much simpler question, and in practice it boils down to "when in doubt, don't." Don't allow virtualization, don't allow transfers, etc.

    This policy has the minor but beneficial consequence of increasing Microsoft's revenues, too, since the end-user who once bought a copy of MSWin95 and reinstalled it on six generations of hardware now has to buy three copies, or perhaps more. It's not going to send Microsoft stock into the 70s any time soon, but as the old saying goes: "Mind the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves."
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Motives

      I've been less inclined than you to ascribe machiavellian motives
      to Microsoft. I had thought many of these issues are simply
      flawed code in an overly complex system. As time goes on
      however, new binding legal language gets applied to flaws, the
      net effect is destructive. Maybe it doesn't matter what the
      motivations are. We have to be wary however. If the criticism
      isn't constructive it serves to exalt MS. It does more to
      encourage Stockholm syndrome than prevent it. Perhaps that is
      your motive?

      In the end, this has to be more than "Ha Ha, you're stuck with
      your platform"

      VM are useful because they fix problems that shouldn't be
      happening to begin with. The preparedness to accept VM as the
      solution to start with is the problem, not the manner in which it
      is (legally) deployed. This should be how this debate is framed.
      The fact that these new dialogues have shifted from computer
      science to contract law is a sign that the arguments are on
      Microsoft's terms. Until one or two of these contributors start
      blogging about a platform switch, it will continue on Microsoft's
      terms. Welcome to consumer advocate forum of the new
      Harry Bardal
      • Game Theory

        [i]The fact that these new dialogues have shifted from computer science to contract law is a sign that the arguments are on Microsoft's terms.[/i]

        Actually, I see the EULA going away as Microsoft automates the same conditions. Part of what we may be seeing in the EULA changes are Microsoft drafting terms that [u]can[/u] be automated.

        [i]Until one or two of these contributors start
        blogging about a platform switch, it will continue on Microsoft's terms. Welcome to consumer advocate forum of the new millennium.[/i]

        Microsoft has a thick skin. I don't really see them worrying about the diminishing returns point until they lose some serious market share. Which, please note, means Dell, HP, etc. Retail sales are, frankly, ground clutter.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
      • WTG Harry

        Actually, that is a very helpful and thoughtful contribution. I very
        much agree with your point about constructive criticism - though
        sometimes I too cannot resist the urge to poke fun. As to blogging
        about a platform switch, it would be good if more people did it, but
        the attempts I have seen rapidly degrade into a slagging match
        between Windows/Apple/Linux fans. It would be far better for
        people to sustain themselves at an objective level.
        Ian Sedwell
    • I have to disagree

      The fact is MicroSoft markets a set of products that is supposed to be useful to it's customers. Erecting legal barriers to the usefulness of those products makes the products less useful and therefore less desirable. At some point the product is less desirable than it is useful and people don't buy it. The current EULA moves MicroSoft a lot closer to that point. Now while MicroSoft does approach being a monopoly they in fact aren't which means one of the competitors of MicroSoft will increase it's market share to the point where MicroSoft is forced to either produce something to compete or change their EULA to make what they've produced more valuable to the customer. I think the problem is that MicroSoft has forgotten that the people buying their products aren't users but their customers and this EULA is just plain old fashion poor customer service.
  • feedback problem

    This may not be the proper avenue to make this point . I have tried to respond to two survey's and to see the results both of which yield:


    We're unable to find the page you requested


    Also the email link from your blog did not result in an email facility .

    I am using FF2.0 .

    Larry Sadler
  • Windows Vista - The OS that Wasn't

    I'm in the "Beta" test group for Windows Vista, just as I was for Windows 3.xx/9.xx/2000/XP.

    Microsoft was supposed to implement a new methodology in Windows XP to shut down pirates and that was to remotely shut down pirated copies of Windows XP. I guess that was harder to implement than they thought.

    Now, they offer more flavors of Windows than Carter has liver pills. Why don't they make Windows Vista one price .... say $199.00 and give you the option of installing whichever version you want for that basic price. Not everyone will want Vista Ultimate. Many will want just their basic upgrades to the "like" product that they already have.

    Also, I would not recommend that everyone rush out to buy it for at least 1-2 years anyway. Windows has always been filled with so much "bloatware" and so "buggy" that Microsoft should actually consider making Vista a "FREE" upgrade for those with Windows 9.x/2000/XP who have been "bug testing" those older versions for years, since they still continue to patch them.

    Yeah, with 25 years of computer industry experience under my belt, my best advice to the consumers, the industry guys and to Microsoft ....
    (1) Microsoft .... make Vista a FREE upgrade to everyone (its not like you need the money anyway)
    (2) To the Industry Tech's .... don't pay for those sorry certificates that are totally meaningless. Keep your money and help your business along by keeping your cash in the capital end of your business.
    (3) To the Consumers .... Keep what you have until Microsoft gets all the bugs out and makes Vista totally backwards compatable with everything since the release of Windows 98.

    Thanks !
    • Wouldn't that be nice

      It's a wonderful vision, and I totally agree with the sentiment...

      But now, over to Bill on planet Earth. "Hi Bill! So how do you think
      Microsoft will ride the embarassment of Vista?"
      "Well Ian, it's a great series of products full of the inoovation that
      we at Microsoft are famous for."
      "OK Bill, thanks for the input. Now back to the studio and that old
      classic 'Dream'"
      Ian Sedwell
  • Retail Pricing

    I agree Microsoft should make this a free update, since it's just another bug-ridden bloatware OS that consumers will be beta testing for years anyhow.

    More importantly, why would anyone in their right mind BUY Microsoft Windows Vista, XP or whatever? For the retail price, you can buy an entire PC WITH the OS included.
    • I agree!

      I'm about ready to reformat my HD. I ordered the SP2 CD from MS (about 2 to 3 weeks)....Fine!
      After reinstalling Windows, anter reinstalling SP2, I'll then have to download and install every update since SP2.....
      Ok with cable (1.5 to 3MBps), rebooting, rechecking updates, installing, rebooting, etc. I ought to be done in about an additional week<weg>

      Bugs, updates, security flaws, seems that is all we paying customers do is beta test Windows.... And who pays?
      We do! We buy it, we test it, we have to put up with it's oops "we need to add this" and everyother glitch and on top of that MS says:
      "We need this security to stop pirates and to keep you (the paying customer) honest"
      So not only do we have to beta test Windows, we have to put up with their protection crap......
      Can anyone say Linux?
      At least they admit it has it's flaws....
      I might even change my 'anti-Mac' ways and look at apple.
      If the PC world wants to keep selling Pc's or lose sales to Apple, they'd better come up with an functional OS other then Windows.....
    • Retail? Here's why:

      Purchase of a retail copy of XP entitles me to migrate to whatever box I desire as long as I remove the previous copy of the OS from the old system.

      OEM versions do-not allow this. You get 1 time.
      • EEeecncncncn......ttt! Wrong!

        You get to transfer RETAIL once. You can NEVER transfer OEM.
        Ole Man
      • I think you missed the point

        You can "migrate" ONCE. So, you can move to another set of hardware one time (or if you change enough of your current system out, it will reset once) and then you cannot migrate again. So, essentially, the Retail version is the OEM version, only without the harddrive, memory, prcessor, etc.(for about the same price).
        • I think you missed the point

          Personally as a user who does the format/re-install dance on an average of about every 1 to 1 1/2 weeks I have never used to have a problem with phone activation. I have three legit copies of XP pro and two of S2K3. I used to just cycle through them so that I wasn't re-activating the same copy all the time.

          I eventually did tire of phone activation though. So I ended up doing exactly what M$ was trying to prevent. Yes, I ended up cracking Windows activation. Now, instead of spending 5-25 minutes on the phone with someone in India who I may or may not be able to understand, after a re-install I run a small utility which activates my copies of XP or S2K3 in about 10 seconds. Quicker on the copies that have SFC dissabled. It even allows the Windows check for some updates and other downloads "only" available to users with "Genuine" copies.

          This is where M$ has driven me. And I'm sure pirates have developed similar work arounds for their copies too. This will happen with Vista also. Probably quite soon after release due to these tighter restrictions.

          In fact, those restrictions with Vista may actually in the end INCREASE piracy.
  • vista license WTG Bill stick to us again

    I have not had a licensed copy of window since Millennium Edition was released bought a version what joke that was. I was going to buy a copy of vista but all this 1 license controversy has put a stop to that? I upgrade my machines at least once a year that include new mother boards at least every 2 years so bill I guess I will not be buying a legit copy but you can bet I will be using a copy
    • Ayyyy there matie

      You pirate software and brag about it. In other words, you ride the coat tails of everyone else who pays for their software. If everyone did as you do, there would be little initiative for companies to invest their time developing products that the public finds useful. Appreciate your contribution to the high cost of software that the rest of us bear.
      • Re: Ayyyy there matie

        While I agree in principle that software piracy is wrong, I have to point out that your argument (that software piracy is the cause of the high cost of software) is spurious at best.

        Why is it that there are so many people who can express themselves intelligently, but shy away from doing a little arithmetic?

        Let's put together a software development team of fifty (50) people, and let's make them high end people, with the average salary coming to $100,000.00 per year. Let's equip each great PC's and all the required software, at $5,000.00 a pop. Let's house them in a luxurious office at $10,000.00 per month. Let them work for a year. Total cost - $5,370,000. Documentation and media come to about $0.75 per copy. Distribution, another (let's be extremely generous) $5.75 per copy.

        Per unit cost - $11.87.

        What is a "reasonable" cost for a fairly complex piece of PC software in today's market? Would you agree that $199.99 would be a bargain?

        That's more than 16 times the actual cost of the software.

        Piracy isn't the cause of the high cost of software - high demand and our willingness to pay is the cause. I'm afraid that you are rationalizing your willingness to part with your hard earned money with something that merely sounds good to you.
      • Open source doesn't cost a thing

        I will remind you that there are many open source projects out there that give you software for free. The cost comes in support. You essentially pay for your *stupidity* not the number of times you use software. If you ask me, paying for something more than once (as in reloading Vista more than once) would be akin to paying for Red Hat when you can download it for free--stupid.

        I'll just stick with XP for now. Microsoft will eventually bend. All we need is for Red Hat to gain one percentage point of market share and MS will fold.
        • Try a MAC

          I have used windows from the start. I also have all of those programs that require windows to run. I am realy considering switching to Mac with all the BS that M$ is throughing at us. Am I to understand that the Mac can now run windows programs. Sounds like the way to get out of the M$ game.
  • Vista security.

    I support anyone's right to try to protect their product, but it seems that Microsoft is getting to the point to where they must choose between keeping their Windows safe from pirates or losing customers.
    I've been using Windows since 3.0 and am seriously considering the OS on my new PC next spring to be anything other than Windows.
    It's one thing to try to stop pirates, but limit what I can or cannot do with my OS (or anything else on MY PC), then I look elsewhere.