The genuine advantage in Windows' woes

Windows Genuine Advantage is nothing of the sort. Take the cue for a fresh look at how IT should work

This weekend, the Windows Genuine Advantage system went offline. WGA went AWOL — and with it, many Windows users' abilities to prove their legitimacy. Updates wouldn't download, features failed to work, people who had shelled out hundreds of pounds were told they were running counterfeit software.

This "feature" is there to protect Microsoft's revenue. It won't. Quite the opposite: people with hacked or illegally verified versions of XP and Vista will have had a better experience than those playing by the book. Others, still deciding whether to adopt Microsoft software, will have another reason to give it a miss.

The episode also highlights a basic contradiction between what Microsoft says — working towards a better user experience, adding features to make its software unbeatable, listening to customers — and what it does. It puts its business model first and refuses to compromise, no matter how flawed that model may be. Windows Genuine Advantage is a designed-in failure mode, and that's just not very clever.

Yet Microsoft's critics should pause before uncorking the champagne. The biggest problem isn't that WGA is flawed in concept and execution, it's that it introduces a single point of failure. Microsoft isn't alone in that: many of the grander dreams of the Web 2.0 software-as-a-service movement overlook and underplay the consequences of having your business run on a remote, shared computer. A peculiar lassitude already infects any office when "the internet's gone down"; that is far worse if it removes access to company data and the means to do anything with it.

Plan for the worst and keep your options as open as possible. If your operating system vendor, your network provider and your services companies conspire against you by going mad, bankrupt or broken, do you have your data to hand no matter what? Is it in a format that lets you switch to different software? If your IT is mostly in-house, what happens if a bomb hits your office? If it's mostly outsourced, what happens when a bomb hits your ISP?

The good news is that there are more options – good ones, at that – than ever before. One needs merely to mix and match the best. That means having a strong desire for good answers to good questions and a deep distrust of hype and marketing. In name and nature, Windows Genuine Advantage is the perfect example of how badly unbalanced IT can become when such considerations are ignored. An expensive lesson, and one we hope is not ignored.