Microsoft bows to users on OS checks

Microsoft Corp. last week said it’s removing the so-called antipiracy kill switch from Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 — a decision driven by complaints from IT managers about the prospect of systems suddenly being unable to function properly.

The first release of Windows Vista goes into a reduced-functionality mode if it isn’t activated via a valid software license key within 30 days of being installed on a PC, or if it gets fingered as counterfeit software by Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) activation and validation system.

But in the Service Pack 1 (SP1) update to Vista, due in next year’s first quarter, Microsoft will replace the reduced-functionality mechanism with a less harsh one.

Under the new approach, users flagged by WGA will see recurring pop-up windows reminding them that they need to activate Vista or buy valid copies of the software.

Microsoft said it will use the same technique in Windows Server 2008, which is scheduled to be launched in late February. Last week, the company issued Release Candidate 1 versions of both Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008, one of the last steps before it clears them for manufacturing.

As is often the case with Microsoft products, many corporate customers are waiting for Vista SP1 before they start upgrading their PCs.

Alex Kochis, Microsoft’s senior product manager for WGA, said negative feedback from such users prompted the software vendor to do away with the reduced-functionality mode.

“In some cases, it was a simple reaction to [the] concept, as in, ‘We don’t like this,’ ” Kochis said. IT managers voiced concerns that business activities would be hampered if PCs stopped working because of activation or validation problems, he noted. Some also said they were worried about the complexity of successfully activating a large number of end users on Vista at once.

John LaBrue, operating systems administrator at OGE Energy Corp. in Oklahoma City, said that WGA has erroneously branded a few of OGE’s copies of Vista as pirated software.

That’s one of the reasons why the utility and pipeline operator has been hesitant to deploy the new operating system, LaBrue said. Only about 100 of OGE’s 3,000 PCs are running Vista at this point.

Jim Prevo, CIO at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. in Waterbury, Vt., said via e-mail that Microsoft’s decision to eliminate the reduced-functionality penalty is a positive step. “Enterprise users like us face major challenges in deploying, maintaining, securing, upgrading and retiring applications and [IT equipment],” he wrote. “Anytime a critical supplier can make our job easier or more predictable, it’s helpful for us.”

On the other hand, Prevo added, Microsoft deserves to be fairly compensated for its software and has the right to protect its intellectual property. “I empathize with Microsoft’s position and fully appreciate why they would try to deploy more rigorous enforcement [measures],” he wrote. “It’s all a balancing act.”

Kochis claimed that the license-validation checks and Microsoft’s broader antipiracy efforts are working: The rate of piracy on Vista is half what it was on Windows XP during the same stage of that operating system’s life cycle, he said.

But LaBrue, for one, still has issues with Microsoft’s antipiracy mechanisms. He also cited concerns about the complexity and potential liability of using Microsoft’s key management service (KMS) software, a volume-activation technology aimed at large customers.

LaBrue said that killing off the reduced-functionality mode in Vista “doesn’t really make KMS more attractive.”

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