Draconian Windows Watchers

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, April 5, 2007

When some people use Windows without paying for it, Microsoft's honest customers wind up covering their tab.

And they don't just pay for it in higher prices that reflect losses due to theft. The bigger collateral damage of Windows piracy now comes from the enforcement systems Microsoft has built into its own software.

These tools are supposed to make using a bogus copy of Windows irritating or impossible. Messages will nag you about not running a genuine copy, parts of Windows may stop working, and you may even be locked out of your own computer. Eventually, you'll break down and break out the credit card.

That can be fair, in theory. But as carried out in Windows -- especially Windows Vista -- it creates two problems for honest users.

First, this scrutiny never ends. It's not enough to authenticate a new Windows setup once. You must keep passing these tests. It's as if the Costco clerk who checks your receipt on the way out of the store follows up by visiting your house every month to verify that you don't have stolen goods.

Second, these automatic enforcement mechanisms don't always work accurately. They also don't account for users who unintentionally use illegitimate copies of Windows.

I run legitimate Windows copies and haven't been seriously inconvenienced by any of this. But readers have begun telling a different story after being unwittingly trapped by these anti-piracy measures.

Once, Microsoft pretty much ignored the risk of piracy. You could take a CD of Windows and install it on other computers just by typing in its product key, that string of numbers and letters that looks like a line from an eye chart.

This did not prevent Microsoft from becoming the wealthiest software company in the world.

Windows XP, however, added a required setup routine called "activation." A new copy of XP generates an anonymous ID number that identifies your computer's hardware and uploads that to Microsoft. An install on a second PC would fail, since that copy's product key would be tied to the first machine.

In 2004, Microsoft's site began requiring a repeat of the activation test, called "validation," before you could download such add-ons as Internet Explorer 7 or Windows Defender. Last year, the company began offering a "Windows Genuine Advantage" validation checkup to XP users as an automatic update.

Validation let Microsoft catch people who had evaded activation and gave a better picture of its piracy problem: About 22 percent of the 600 million copies of Windows subject to validation since 2004 flunked the test, it said.

Validation also turned a one-time procedure into an ongoing chore. With Windows Vista, the screws have been turned tighter yet. Validation is built in, along with anti-tampering tools to block any disabling of activation or validation.

In Vista, failing validation won't just put an annoying message on the screen. Parts of Vista, such as the slick Aero interface shown in Microsoft's ads, will deactivate. In a worst-case scenario, Vista will enter "reduced functionality mode" -- you can only run your Web browser, which opens to a page on Microsoft's site that sells new product keys for Vista.

Meanwhile, Microsoft hasn't done much to help people stay honest. It offers only minimal discounts to people who want a second copy of Windows for use at home. Its most generous option, the Additional License program, cuts a total of $16 off the $159 retail price of a second upgrade to Windows Vista Home Premium.

These anti-piracy steps can annoy users who resent being treated like shoplifters. In rare cases, they can also convict the innocent.

Some people unknowingly get a bogus copy of Windows -- it came preinstalled on a computer, or somebody put an illegitimate copy on their machine when they brought it in for repairs.

Microsoft says it will give a free copy of Windows to unintentional buyers of a counterfeit copy, but you have to mail in the offending CD or DVD. If none came with the computer (a common case these days), you'll have to pay up.

Other times, a glitch in Windows can trip one of its own anti-piracy defenses. Vista users have found that simply installing certain other programs, such as the role-playing game MapleStory or some security utilities from Trend Micro and PC Tools, can set off Vista's anti-tampering measures.

David Lazar, who runs Microsoft's Genuine Windows anti-piracy effort, said the company strives for accuracy. "You don't want to mess around with an error," he said yesterday. "I can tell you that well in excess of 99 percent of all [validation-failure] results are accurate."

But even a tiny share of the Windows-using population adds up to a lot of angry users. Given the effort it can take to upgrade to Vista -- its hardware needs and software-compatibility issues exceed those of earlier releases -- this is no time to make more enemies.

Microsoft may have a serious problem with piracy, but it has to solve it as a business, not a police agency.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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