Will Office 2007 get a 'kill switch,' too?

Microsoft all but admitted earlier this month that the company is building a “kill switch

Microsoft all but admitted earlier this month that the company is building a “kill switch” into Windows Vista, as part of its strategy to lock down Vista with Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA).

While officials haven’t conceded that they are planning to do the same with Office 2007, it sure sounds like that is the intent.

Given that Office 2007 is expected to be released to manufacturing any day now, customers are sure to be interested in Microsoft’s intentions in this area.

Late last week, a number of blogs and news sites reported that Microsoft had made Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) – the Office sibling of WGA, which has been in pilot test since April 2006 -- mandatory for Office-related downloads. In fact, according to Microsoft, OGA doesn’t officially move from voluntary to mandatory until January 2007, the same time Office 2007 launches. Testers working with Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh test builds have run into Microsoft’s mandatory OGA validation request when seeking access to Office Online templates – hence the recent round of stories.

I asked Microsoft on October 30 whether the company is planning a WGA-like lock-down for Office 2007. The e-mail response, from Ashim Jaidka, Lead Program Manager for Office Genuine Advantage:

“Regarding your question about OGA eventually doing the same thing as WGA with regards to lock-downs into the product, Microsoft is absolutely committed to having Microsoft Office participate in the advantages of Microsoft’s overarching Genuine Software Initiative (GSI) from a long-term, broad perspective as part of upcoming releases, but (we) don’t have anything further to share regarding any plans for building lock-downs at this time.”

It’s true that “lock-downs” can mean a lot of things. But in WGA’s case, they take the form of progressive feature disablement, to the point where systems become basically unusable. Does this mean we’ll soon see Genuine Advantage “benefits,” like your Office ribbon self-destructing and your Internet access restricted to one hour a day, thanks to OGA? Based on Jaidka’s response, I’d say that’s a distinct possibility.

Back in September, my blogging colleague Ed Bott noted that Office 2007 beta testers were encountering Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) false positives that were very similar to the ones experienced by Windows users attempting to validate their software via Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA).

But at that time, it had yet to be revealed (although Bott accurately guessed as much) that Microsoft was planning to cut off the air supply of Vista users who failed validation checks. Microsoft’s public acknowledgement came on October 4, when Microsoft officials said that not only would they disable access to Aero, ReadyBoost and Windows Defender for Vista users who were judged to be pirates, but they’d also eventually disable their systems to the point of making them unusable until they could pass WGA muster.

Microsoft hates the term “kill switch.” But there’s really no denying that is how WGA is designed to function for Vista users who fail validation tests.

Back to OGA, for a moment. On a positive note, it sounds like Microsoft won’t block Office users from obtaining critical security updates -- even those who can’t or won’t validate via OGA, once it becomes mandatory in Janaury. Microsoft’s Jaidka said:

“Updates that address software vulnerabilities are available to all Office users – with or without OGA validation -- via the Download Center where they can be accessed interactively or automatically though the Windows Automatic Updates feature with OU (Office Update) and MU (Microsoft Update). Accessing updates through either of these channels does not require OGA validation.”

If this were a perfect world, and there were no false positives, WGA and OGA lock downs would be more defendable. But as Bott and others have noted, there are false positives, unwitting users who are tricked into believing they’ve purchased valid copies of commercial software products and stolen/hacked volume-license keys. Until these problems are eliminated, “benefits” like WGA and OGA validation should remain opt-ins.