Opinion: Windows Genuine Advantage and why you should be annoyed

Microsoft runs the risk of alienating a lot of customers, says Scot Finnie

Just when it looks like Microsoft might be coming around, at least somewhat, on the boondoggle that is User Account Control in its upcomig Windows Vista operating system, the company loses all rationality and releases several consecutive betas of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) to millions of unsuspecting Windows XP users. Moreover, it has done so via its high-priority security Automatic Updates, Windows Update and Microsoft Update online-updating channels.

WGA is a beta anti-piracy program from Microsoft that's designed to keep it from losing money on stolen product keys and counterfeit copies of Windows and Office. In typical Big Corporation lie-through-your-teeth-marketing style, Microsoft has named its anti-piracy push to sound as if there were something good about it for customers, when in fact, the only advantage is for Microsoft. For some small percentage of legitimate Windows customers, WGA is going to be a royal pain in the behind, with the potential to make some people very frustrated and angry with Microsoft. And for many other people already teetering on the fence about whether Microsoft is a good company to deal with, it may tip them away once and for all. If you doubt that at all, go search Google for "WGA."

Bloggers, newsletter authors and computer publications have already reported a good deal about WGA. Unfortunately, the negative impact WGA may have on "man in the street" Windows users hasn't permeated into the mainstream press. It wouldn't be difficult for The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN or Consumer Reports to find average people who've been told their legitimate Windows XP or Office 2003 software is a "counterfeit copy." Because that's what WGA does. It's a small sliver of code that watches your computer and tries to determine whether your copy of Windows is legit. If WGA determines your software doesn't have the proper credentials, it may offer you any of several options for paying up. In other words, WGA sets itself up as Big Brother, watching your PC for possible use of invalid or stolen product keys.

Microsoft has given out only vague information, published in a blog, about the existence of false positives -- those times when WGA wrongly accuses Windows customers of having an illegitimate copy of Microsoft software. At least 80% of the pirated or counterfeit software WGA finds involves the use of stolen or repeat use of one-time product keys, where Microsoft has a genuine beef. Has Microsoft (or any software development company) ever written perfect code? Of course not. So there are false positives; We just don't know how many.

What makes that doubly difficult to sort out -- and this is the part that makes it hard for the press to report on WGA -- is that not all of the apparent false positives are actually false positives. You may have paid for your copy of Windows, but it may actually be a counterfeit copy. You may have recently brought your PC in for repair, and the repair shop may have used its copy of Windows XP to reinstall Windows on your system as part of the repair process. You may have purchased a used PC sold with Windows XP or Office only to find that you weren't sold a legitimate license. In some cases, that may even happen with new PCs.

This brings me to the aspect of WGA that I feel is the largest mistake. Microsoft is going directly after its own customers -- not the serious bad guys -- with this software. I'm sure it believes it must do this to get the counterfeiters, the repair shops that use the same XP CD and product key repeatedly, the system builders who sell the same license over and over, and the smaller enterprises that, while they have purchased machines that are properly licensed, are using a single Windows image and product key (not acquired through volume licensing) for all their new PCs. But there has to be a better way than alienating hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Microsoft software users who have no idea that they're somehow violating Microsoft's product licensing rules. The potential is huge for bad publicity, ill will and a feeling that using Windows is an open invitation to let Microsoft decide whether you need to pay a second time for Windows or Office. Microsoft is apparently more interested in squeezing every last penny out of its existing installed base than it is in preserving customer satisfaction or developing a better mousetrap.

The actual numbers of false positives don't matter. It's about the perception. It's glaringly obvious that Microsoft cares not a whit about individual Windows users. Its only focus is largest volume-licensing customers and OEM PC makers. Since it's all about Microsoft recouping money, it's hard not to look at this as corporate greed at the expense of unsuspecting corporate customers and end users. I am personally disgusted by WGA. I'd be willing to bet that at least half the people working at Microsoft feel the same way. They can't say it; I can.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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