Can Microsoft stay a step ahead of the Vista pirates?

Will Microsoft's new update to Windows Vista that is aimed at thwarting downloaders who are circumventing Vista's build-in product activation actually achieve the desired goal? The jury is out.

This week, Microsoft began making available to select Windows Vista users an update to Vista that is aimed at thwarting downloaders who are circumventing Vista's build-in product activation. But is Microsoft's solution going to do much to stop the so-called "frankenbuilds" that combine combining test versions of Vista with the final code?

Microsoft is pushing out the new Vista update via the Windows Update Web site, as company officials explained on the Windows Genuine Advantage team blog on December 14.

"Windows Vista will use the new Windows Update client to require only the 'frankenbuild' systems to go through a genuine validation check," explained company officials on the WGA blog. "These systems will fail that check because we have blocked the RC keys for systems not authorized to use them. In other words, the wrong key is being used. The systems will then be flagged as non-genuine systems and the experience will be what we announced back in October, including losing certain functionality (e.g. Aero, ReadyBoost) and the system will have 30 days to activate with a good product key."

Robert McLaws, president of Interscape Technologies and founder of the Windows-Now Microsoft-enthusiast site, says Microsoft's intentions are good, but the results might fall short of the company's goals.

"Microsoft is no longer sitting by the sidelines and watching piracy happen," said McLaws. "But the problem with the Frankenbuilds is there's no way to tell a test key from a live key. They (Microsoft) should have used completely different systems, like a 12-letter test key and a 25-letter live key."

Microsoft officials acknowledged that there have been at least two distinct activation workarounds circulating for Vista that "have worked to some degree," and that there are no doubt more on the way.

Just this week, a new technique for circumventing Windows product activation (seemingly including Vista activation) was making its way around the Web.