Genuine Advantage: Can Microsoft recast itself as protector, not punisher?

Microsoft s trying to change public perceptions of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) and Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) -- programs that many company observers and customers consider to be much more punitive than protective.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

I wouldn't want Cori Hartje's job. She is the head of Microsoft's much-maligned Genuine Software Initiative -- the team responsible for implementing Windows Genuine Advantage and Office Genuine Advantage.

Hartje was on a cross-country press tour last week. Microsoft has no new Genuine Advantage lockdowns to announce as part of the Windows Vista and Office 2007 consumer launch next week. (Late last year, Microsoft officials announced that copies of Vista that fail to pass WGA muster will degrade into "reduced functionality mode," and that volume licensees will be subject to new, mandatory Volume Activation programs.There are other new WGA and OGA "advantages" coming some time after January 29, company officials said.)

But Microsoft officials did have a message to deliver last week. The company is trying to change public perceptions of WGA and OGA -- programs that many company observers and customers consider to be much more punitive than protective.

As part of previous outreach efforts, Microsoft has emphasized how much money it is losing as a result of software piracy. But now Microsoft's main antipiracy message is that it wants to safeguard its customers from malicious software -- however that software came to be installed at customer sites.

As part of this effort, Microsoft is banging the "Counterfeit Software Is Risky" drum. Malware and spyware permeates counterfeit Websites, illicit key generators, pirated software and crack tools, according to Microsoft's and International Data Corp.'s research. By purchasing or downloading pirated software, companies are putting themselves in harm's way, the Softies say.

However, it's not just "bad guys" who are dabbling with pirated software. According to a Yankee Group study on WGA/OGA -- commissioned and paid for by Microsoft -- which was released to the public on January 22, more than 50 percent of consumers and small business admit they've discovered "some instances of counterfeit or pirated software in their organizations at some time."

Microsoft's point: Even if YOU aren't a pirate yourself, pirated software still might be lurking inside your company. Microsoft is relying on this new data to give more teeth to its WGA and OGA initiatives, both of which require users to "authenticate" their copies of Microsoft software to prove hey are not pirated in order to obtain upgrades and downloads.

Since July 2005, 512 million users have validated their software using Microsoft's Genuine Advantage mechanisms. Wordwide, 22.3 percent of these users have found their software to be "non-Genuine," according to the latest statistics released by Microsoft. Within the pool of users discovering their software is "non-Genuine," there've been 56,000 counterfeit reports filed, according to the Softies.

"Fewer than one percent" of the non-Genuine group are "false positives," Hartje reiterated, meaning fewer than five million customers were called out wrongly as pirates. Hartje declined to be more precise, but said if the "false postivie" number were above one percent, Microsoft would be screaming bloody murder -- both because of lost revenues, as well as support-call overload.

In the final analysis, while Microsoft's words are different, its Genuine Advantage tactics remains the same.

I'm betting Microsoft's new messaging is likely to do little to appease Genuine Advantage critics. Short of elimating the WGA and OGA campaigns -- which Microsoft won't do, regardless of how much ill-will they generate -- is there anything Microsoft could and should do to make WGA and OGA more palatable, in your opinion? Any incentives for Genuine users you'd like to see added to the program that aren't there? Other ideas?

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