Only consumers pressure can curb Microsoft's obsession with anti-piracy technology

Only consumers pressure can curb Microsoft's obsession with anti-piracy technology

Summary: Consumers need to call on Microsoft to be more open and honest when it comes to WGA and other anti-piracy measures.

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TOPICS: Piracy
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Last week Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told Wall Street analysts that "piracy reduction can be a source of Windows revenue growth."  One way that Microsoft could reduce piracy is to make WGA tougher.  This would be good for Microsoft but a disaster for consumers.  Consumers need to call on Microsoft to be more open and honest when it comes to WGA and other anti-piracy measures.

No matter what marketing spin Microsoft puts on it, WGA means more trouble for consumersOver the past few years I've been watching Microsoft ramp up the anti-piracy technology baked into their products.  The first indication that Microsoft was getting tired of piracy was product activation.  This was a new tactic but one that users got used to pretty quickly.  The only people really bugged by product activation are those who swap systems regularly or those who make a lot of changes.  I'm sure that I've had more encounters with product activation than most, and while it's annoying to be told that you've exceed the number of allowed activations and a pain to have to call the Microsoft activation line, it's not really a problem.

[poll id=88]

But following product activation Microsoft started experimenting with Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA).  The name hints that WGA might be some kind of loyalty scheme or benefit system aimed to reward consumers for purchasing a legitimate copy of Windows, and Microsoft goes to great lengths to make it seem like this by requiring users to validate before downloading certain updates and additional software.  But in reality only Microsoft benefits from WGA.  WGA was a clever ploy to validate the operating system at regular intervals, first when updates and software were being downloaded, and then with WGA Notifications, on a regular basis.  The anti-piracy thumb screws are tightened up a little more each time and as a result consumers are faced with more hassle.

Windows Vista has anti-piracy technology built in in the form of Software Protection Platform (SPP).  In the past I've been highly critical of the lengths that Microsoft is willing to go to in order to root out pirates (for background see this post and this one from late 2006).  It seemed that a compromise that was acceptable had been reached as the release date for Vista neared, but now it seems that Microsoft wants to ratchet up the anti-piracy features again.  Here are some telling quotes by Ballmer to analysts last week:

"Piracy reduction can be a source of Windows revenue growth, and I think we'll make some piracy improvements this year"

"We have new technologies built into Windows Vista, something we call Windows Genuine Advantage [that] we've really dialed up in capabilities with the Vista release.  I do think that will bring some revenue growth. We will have strong growth in the Windows business in emerging markets: China, India, Brazil, Russia and many others. Those markets are very high piracy."

"We [will] really ferret through how far we can dial it up [WGA], and what that means for customer experience and customer satisfaction."

The last quote here is the most telling, and the most frightening, of all.  There is no customer upside to ramping up WGA.  It's downsides all the way.  More false positives, more restrictions on how much users can change their PC's configuration, more hassle.  No matter what marketing spin Microsoft puts on it, WGA means more trouble for consumers.

Now I'm not going to disagree that some countries exhibit insane levels of piracy and I'll also agree that Microsoft has the right to demand payment for the use of their software.  What I dislike is that every Windows user is unwillingly being forced to take part in a mass anti-piracy and DRM experiment.  Microsoft knows that some legitimate customers will be caught up in the net and yet it feels that this is justified.  I disagree.  Tweaks to the anti-piracy mechanisms need serious consideration and personally I would have felt better if there had been a greater level of emphasis placed on this during the beta testing stage.  I'm unhappy about the idea that Microsoft could be regularly releasing updates to the anti-piracy technology onto millions of users (most of which will be legitimate users) because this could have serious consequences.  Mistakes will be made and this will inflict an additional workload and costs onto legit users while also making other users wary of updating their operating system, which has a knock-on effect that more PCs are available to be put to work by hackers and cyber-criminals, something which will, in one way or another, affect us all.

I have no doubt that Microsoft will turn up the heat on pirates, and that there will be some level of collateral damage.  What Windows users need to do is to call on Microsoft to be open about what steps they plan on taking, give consumers proper warning that changes are ahead, to offer a greater level of support to affected consumers and to be open, receptive to feedback and honest about the numbers of innocent users caught in the net.

Today Microsoft has released an update to WGA because the previous version was causing users problems.  This is currently available for download and the plan is that it will be rolled out via Windows Update over the next weeks or months.  Only time will tell if this is any better.

Topic: Piracy

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45 comments
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  • Say what?

    If Microsoft thinks slow Vista sales are due to piracy they're living in la-la land. Whatever happened to customer demand? It's nonexistant for this product.
    jasonkolb
    • But MS claims...

      Almost everything I've read agrees with you, but isn't MS claiming outstanding sales for Vista?

      However I do have to thank MS for Vista.
      Vista and it's DRM is the reason I tried LINUX. That and the proposed one time reactivation.
      The attitude associated with DRM is also the reason I switched to Open Office which meets my needs. So instead of upgrading 5 machines to Vista I'll be staying with XP Pro and adding LINUX in a dual boot configuration. Instead of purchasing one office upgrade and four new copies I'll be installing Open Office. That saves me nearly $2,000 for the OS and I believe more than that for Office.
      rdhalsteatzd
  • Problem With Your Survey

    Not complaining too much, but I think you have a problem with the survey. It is not possible to have over 100%

    Is Microsoft too obsessed with DRM?

    Yes (150%)
    No (0%)
    Total Votes 2
    therealbigdaddy
    • It'll sort itself out ...

      ... always does! ;-)
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • That's right

    Just bend over, keep smiling, and tell yourself you deserve it because someone else
    is a thief.
    frgough
    • Gaaahhh!

      I'm going to spend the rest of the day getting that image out of my head!
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • The funny thing is that it's the thief who's worrying about piracy

      Every MS product started as some other company's idea. They were either reverse-engineered (CP/M-86, which his how MS got into the operating system market), copied (GUIs and Web Explorer) or simply stolen (Stacker).

      MS' philosophy is that they're the King of Thieves, so anyone suspected of being lesser thieves will be punished.
      critic-at-arms
  • Tired of the Hassle

    I agree that in some countries that there are big piracy problems for Microsoft and they should do what they can to protect their software. MS is walking a fine line and at some point people are going to get tired of it. And it will not just be the end users, but IT as well.I don't see support for Windows getting any easier or less costly. If MS doesn't keep the support costs down for their future OSes, people are going to look for alternatives.
    r.hamilton@...
  • You are absolutely right...

    This is why I WILL NOT buy Vista in any shape or form. I will ride my existing XP installs until Microsoft makes it untenable to continue (probably by retrofitting this crap with sideslipped updates). In the interim I will be pushing out Linux everywhere I can.
    This is not going to stop the dedicated pirates (but it will sure make a lot of innocent people angry when their PC goes into 'reduced functionality mode' and they are told to pay for a new license).
    We need to let Microsoft know that we are fed up with being treated as guilty until proven innocent. Vote with your wallet - that's all they understand.
    carr2ns
    • Re: You are absolutely right...

      [i]Vote with your wallet - that's all they understand. [/i]

      Switch to Linux and keep your wallet in your pants.


      :)
      none none
  • Wrong

    "...while it's annoying to be told that you've exceed the number of allowed activations and a pain to have to call the Microsoft activation line, it's not really a problem."

    Just plain wrong. Product activation *is* a problem. It's an undue burden on a paying customer. You wanna sit on their phone line for 45 minutes before getting your help? I don't. In fact, it's wrong that I should have to call at all. I paid. That's it. Period. Prosecute the pirates, don't infringe on real people.
    Techboy_z
    • I'd go ballistic ...

      If I had to hang on the phone for 45 mins - It's never taken me more than 5 minutes to complete a phone activation. Still, it's a pain in the rear.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • ANY time on the phone costs my company

        My employer loses a LOT of money if we are not able to use the computers. That 5 minutes would actually be 15, because we wouldn't be making the call -- our IT guru would have to do that.

        But even if it were only 5 minutes, that's 5 minutes in which someone is unable to do their job. 5 Minutes during which one biggest clients might not be able to get the instant support that they pay us a lot of money for. Do that a couple of times and it's "Sayonara, Biggest Client."

        That is 5 minutes during which the company is paying my salary, the IT guru's salary, the software license fees, the utility bills, the property taxes, the wear and tear on the equipment . . .but not getting a single penny back.

        Multiply that by several hundred systems just at this one campus, and that "not more than 5 minutes" would still be pretty expensive.

        We have a similar problem to triplell regarding compartmentalization -- we literally couldn't afford WGA.

        Now we don't have to worry about it. I only get into MS-problem discussions now because it amuses me.
        critic-at-arms
    • You're so right

      You're so right! I am completely sick of all this WGA etc. Having to call everytime I install my os or new hardware because MS feels 3 times is enough. I have, after nearly 20 years of loyal MS use, decided to switch to Solaris/Linux, whichever turns out best. What the accountants at MS are forgetting through short termism is that WIndows ONLY 'genuine advantage' is having their os on nearly all pcs! As more and more people are driven to alternatives, these alternatives become better funded and take more market. Its a circle. If MS loses this advantage they've had it. Look at Google's new office suite: they see the writing on the walls...
      hejcb
    • Never had this problem

      The only times I had to call MS about a server license or TSCAL activation problem, it took a few minutes and was no big deal.

      Ten whole minutes of my time to transfer a $4,000 Enterprise license from one server to another, does'nt seem like an onerous burden. Now, if they sent me something as a sweetener, that would be better.
      jmusto@...
  • No downside

    Consumers? Get real.

    People don't buy "operating systems," they buy "computers." Despite the Microsoft ads plastering every billboard in San Francisco [1], the fact is that consumers don't care.

    They [b]certainly[/b] don't care enough to stop buying computers, and Microsoft knows it. Net result: MS can do what it wants, and can now turn its strategic sights on other ways to lock in media outlets, etc.

    [1] One tinfoil-hat theory is that MS wants to make sure that the relatively few press/advertising channels left after consolidation know which side of their bread is buttered so as to minimize any negative reviews.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Pain for some, freedom for others

    The only alternative is to go Apple's route. Thanks but no thanks, I'll buy my hardware from the vendors that I choose. I like the fact that my computers, unlike Apples, don't have a TPM DRM chip in them keeping an eye on everything I'm doing. Actually, my laptop has a TPM chip but it is disabled and Vista has no complaints. Disable the TPM DRM chip in your Mac and see how much OSX likes it! Why does OSX constantly check for the existence of the TPM chip? After all, you bought OSX fair and square. Why is Apple calling you a thief? Oh, right, iTMS and Apple's very strong ties to the RIAA.
    NonZealot
    • Suggestion

      "The only alternative is to go Apple's route."

      Here is an opportunity to call for more alternatives instead of complaining about
      Apple. Are we to tar and feather Apple for being an alternative? The "only" one
      apparently. Would you prefer that this alternative were not available because you
      would not choose it?

      Could I suggest that Apple's preparedness to compete with Microsoft is a benefit
      to Windows users?

      What do you think? A simple yes or no will do.
      Harry Bardal
      • My fault

        I realized after I had posted that my statement would have been read the way you read it instead of the way I meant it. That is my fault though, not yours.

        [i]The only alternative is to go Apple's route.[/i]

        I was talking about other ways in which MS could deal with piracy. MS could continue what they are doing now or they could do things the Apple way and only sell Windows on Microsoft hardware. Thanks but no thanks. It doesn't hurt that the Apple alternative exists but I will never standardize on an OS that will only work on hardware from one vendor. Ever.

        [i]Could I suggest that Apple's preparedness to compete with Microsoft is a benefit to Windows users?[/i]

        No because most Windows users will not pay $1,200 to get an OS that isn't any better than what they have right now. Linux, on the other hand, is a benefit to Windows users since it is more of a threat to MS. Apple's attack ads on Vista show that Apple is [b]terrified[/b] of Vista. Go to Apple's site and all you see are snide, biting remarks about MS. Go to MS's site and the only mention you'll see of Apple is that Office is available for the Mac. MS doesn't give 2 hoots about Apple. Linux on the other hand... I believe MS is terrified of Linux and this is good for Microsoft customers. If Apple fell off the earth tomorrow, not a single Microsoft customer would ever notice. Take away the threat of Linux though and the story changes.

        Sorry Harry, there is nothing wrong with backing the insignificant team but make no mistake about it, Apple doesn't matter in the least to Microsoft or its customers. That isn't a good thing or a bad thing, it is simply the truth.
        NonZealot
    • MS pain for you, Linux freedom for me

      You said that the "only" alternative is the Apple route. You know better, MSZealot.

      When pain is inflicted, the victim seeks to avoid it -- except for masochists. You are welcome to let Redmond chain you up and whip you, but don't try to pretend that you have no choice in the matter.
      critic-at-arms