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

Consumers need to call on Microsoft to be more open and honest when it comes to WGA and other anti-piracy measures.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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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.

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