Commentary: Has Microsoft gone soft on piracy?

Microsoft is perpetually scourged by software pirates but in a paroxysm of compassion, the computing giant will soon go easy on the culprits. Or are they?
Written by Fran Foo, Contributor

Users of illegitimate Windows XP copies will be allowed to download and install Microsoft's upcoming security patch -- Service Pack 2 (SP2), according to one Microsoft executive.

This wasn't the case in Service Pack 1 and the move runs contrary to the company's mantra that piracy harms "everyone in the software community including end users."

The final version of SP2 is slated to launch this quarter although beta testers have been going through the motions with the Release Candidate 1 version of the product since last year.

From a revenue perspective, anti-piracy watchdog the Business Software Alliance (BSA) says that software piracy costs over $220 million in lost sales in Australia every year.

So after years spent trying to curb the widespread use of illegitimate software, why is Microsoft backpeddling? Well, all was revealed in an interview with Singapore's Computer Times  where Microsoft group product manager Barry Goffe was quoted as saying: "We haven't explicitly done anything to SP2 to exclude it from pirated copies."

"It was a tough choice but we finally decided that even if someone has a pirated copy of Windows, it is more important to keep him safe than it is to be concerned about the revenue issue," said Goffe, who began his career at Microsoft in 1995 spearheading technical marketing, product strategy and public relations for the SQL Server division.

The executive went on to say that having unsecure users would ultimately impact its legitimate customers. "Having these unsecured users means bigger worm and virus outbreaks."

I was dumbstuck by the article. Silly but what a noble gesture on Microsoft's part ... or so I thought.

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end and so Microsoft has gone into spin control after the story was plastered all over the Web and newsgroups last week.

The company now says that SP2 will install after the validity of the operating system's product ID is determined.

"Using genuine software is an important part of keeping systems secure and running smoothly, because it means continued access to the latest security enhancements and product updates. Licensed Windows XP, coupled with the upcoming Service Pack 2, will represent Microsoft’s most secure desktop operating system.

"Press reports indicating Windows XP Service Pack 2 will install on pirated or illegal copies of Windows XP are not entirely true. Prior to installing, SP2 will check the operating system's product ID (PID) against a list of known pirated PIDs. If a PID is found to be invalid, SP2 will not install," said a Microsoft Asia-Pacific spokesperson.

In Microsoft's eyes, the article misrepresented its position on software piracy. It's unclear if the entire episode was a case of "verbal diarrhoea" on Goffe's part but one thing's for sure, it will be a cold day in hell before Microsoft turns a blind eye to software pirates.

Fran Foo is the editor of ZDNet Australia Insight.

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