FAQ: For Microsoft, antipiracy is a naked baby

Switches, snitches and lack of stitches -- it's all about protecting the wares

The mystery of Vista's Lilliputian faces likely piqued your curiosity because it was -- well, weird. A photograph too tiny to see of three smiling guys embedded in the Vista installation DVD? What's next, a microdot to dot the "i" in Microsoft? It sounded like an urban legend.

Actually, it's not the strangest thing Microsoft's done to combat counterfeiters and pirates. As the world's largest software maker, the company has also been in the forefront of antipiracy measures. And sometimes the front of the line is -- well, weird. So, in a piratanical spirit -- that's half pirate, half puritan -- we offer these treasures.

What other juicy images are on the DVD?

Someone named Jayme snapped shots of the four photographs using a camera phone and, believe it or not, a toy microscope, then shared them with Microsoft's Steven Bink, who posted them on his site.

A second shot shows two guys, while the third is a very muddy image of one of Vista's wallpaper choices. The fourth is a bad copy of Jan Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. The real deal is in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden, Germany.

Do Vista DVDs have more holographic tricks?

Sure. Flip the DVD over and stare at the side with the data. Microsoft' ha put a detailed hologram on the inner mirror band that changes color when you tilt the disc. Pretty.

On the front of the DVD, find the security patch, which features the word "Microsoft." Tilt the disc and it changes to "GENUINE". Three stripes run across the patch background. Peer through a magnifying glass. The stripes are made up of the binary numbers 1 and 0, repeated. Clever. It's a little bit like the security thread in U.S. currency. But not.

Is 'Phar Lap' Thai for 'lightning' or Microsoft for 'mea culpa'?

In 1999, Robert Smith, then the president of Brookline, Mass., developer Phar Lap Software Inc., discovered that Microsoft's Windows 98 and Office 1997 were digitally "fingerprinting" files with the user's Ethernet card address (also called the MAC address). Windows 98 was also transmitting the MAC address to Microsoft as part of the registration process, without the user's permission or knowledge.

"This fingerprinting scheme could be used (or misused) to trace the origin of document files," said Smith in 1999. "If a whistle blower leaked a Word document to the press about a company or government agency, the Ethernet address might be used to track the document back to the author."

Microsoft first tried to downplay the issue as a registration bug. In a 1999 story by John Markoff of The New York Times, a Microsoft group product manager, Robert Bennett, said, "The software was not supposed to send this information unless the computer user checked a specific option."

But within days, the company came clean, and in a letter to customers, said it would immediately stop the practice, change Windows 98's registration process in the first service pack, expunge already-collected data from its records, and provide tools to delete hardware data from the registry.

The letter and an associated Q&A, though once on the Microsoft site, are now nowhere to be found. However, several of the tools distributed in the aftermath, including the Office 97 Unique Identifier Removal Tool, are still available.

What parts of the PC count when it comes to piracy?

First used in 2001 in Windows XP, activation requires users to enter the 25-character product key -- the alphanumeric string on the familiar yellow sticker -- after an initial grace period to continue using the operating system. Behind the scenes, Windows Product Activation (WPA, not to be confused with this WPA), generated a hash of 10 PC components, links the hash to the product key, and sends both to Microsoft.

Even when XP was in beta, irate users raised a stink about WPA, seeing it as a way for Microsoft to force registration on users and worrying that they'd be on the phone every time they swapped out a piece of hardware. Microsoft counterattacked by spelling out in detail (download Word document) the scenarios when XP would have to be reactivated. The company retained WPA.

Ironically, the implication then was that the vast majority of users would face activation only once. Not necessarily now. Enterprise and other business users of Windows Vista can be asked to reactivate on a regular basis. And earlier this year, a bug forced Vista users to reactivate after they'd installed new device drivers or run newly installed software.

If you kill the switch, is that a crime?

First, the switch is something Microsoft denies it has ever implemented in Windows. Second, "kill switch" is a term used to describe a way to turn off, or kill, counterfeit copies of Windows and of switch off the computer.

Last summer, Microsoft denied it had included a kill switch in Windows XP when the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) antipiracy tool swung into action. But the equivalent of a kill switch -- even if Microsoft dances around the definition -- is baked into Vista.

Here's what happens. If you don't activate Vista within 30 days of first firing it up, the operating system drops into what Microsoft calls "reduced functionality mode." You're able to access only the browser -- presumably to obtain a legitimate product key -- and then only for an hour at a crack. If reactivation is triggered because you've swapped out hardware, the grace period is only three days.

OK, what's with the naked baby?

The tyke wasn't in Windows, but on the box, according to Raymond Chen, a well-known, longtime Windows developer.

"Every Windows 95 box has an antipiracy hologram on the side," Chen wrote on his "The New Old Thing" blog back in 2003. "The photographer chose his infant son as his model, since the human face is very hard to copy accurately. The baby sits next to a computer, and as you turn the hologram, his arm rises and points at the computer monitor, which bursts into a Windows 95 logo.

"How cute. And everybody loves babies.

"Until we got a complaint from a government (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) that was upset with Windows 95 because it depicted naked children. 'Naked children!?' we all thought to ourselves.

"They were complaining about the hologram on the box. The baby wasn't wearing a shirt. Even though the baby was visible only from the waist up, the offended government assumed that he wasn't wearing pants either.

"We had to produce a new hologram. In the new hologram, the baby is wearing a shirt and overalls. But since this was a rush job, we didn't have time to do the arm animation."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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