Microsoft lowers boom on illegal Windows copies

Microsoft Corp. is tightening the noose for those people running illegal or pirated copies of its Windows XP Professional, Windows XP Home, Windows XP Tablet editions and Windows 2000 software on their systems. Starting Tuesday it will be mandatory for users of this Windows software to certify that their software is a genuine and legal copy before they will be able to receive any updates except security patches and fixes via Windows Update, Microsoft Update, and the Download Center. Some 80 million Microsoft Windows customers use those three services every month. The updates that will be withheld for those users who refuse to allow their software to be validated include those for Windows Media Player, DirectX for gaming, the new Windows anti-spyware products--in short, everything except critical security fixes, said David Lazar, Microsoft's Director for Genuine Windows in Redmond, Washington. While there is an Office Validation Assist program that currently validates Office users' licenses, Lazar was not specific as to whether Microsoft plans to expand this Windows Genuine Advantage program to other products. "That would be speculation. This is certainly something to consider, but is not something that is in the pipeline at this time," he said. Asked why Microsoft is still allowing illegal users of its software to get security updates, he said that "we are making a trade-off between getting a high conversion rate from non-genuine to genuine against the public health on the Internet. We want to make sure that people are not getting infected unnecessarily." Microsoft launched in September 2004 the , which was designed to check whether consumer and small-business customers were running legitimately licensed copies of Windows XP. Until now the program has been running as a voluntary "opt-in" in 25 different languages, wherein users validate their software by providing Microsoft-requested system information, including their Windows product keys, names of PC manufacturers and operating system versions. The Redmond software company then uses this to determine if customers are running legitimate copies of Windows. More than 5 million users have participated in the voluntary validation process. But that opt-in component has now ended. Microsoft has also made changes to streamline the process, including no longer requiring customers to enter their product key since the ActiveX control used to validate their software can now automatically determine whether they have a genuine Windows product. "We run a system scan using an ActiveX control, or an alternative EXE if the customer is unable or unwilling to run ActiveX controls, and we are able to identify a genuine system by doing several checks," he said. Essentially what will happen is that users will get a notification from Microsoft asking them to participate; if they accept this request, the ActiveX control will then be installed and the scan run in the background. Once the scan has been completed and the software is verified to be genuine, from that point forward the user will be entitled to receive all updates, he said. The ActiveX control can be deleted once the verification has been completed, as it installs a small key license store that entitles the user to future updates. But, if the ActiveX control is revised in the future, it might have to be downloaded again at that time, Lazar said. Microsoft was also planning to announce on Tuesday a program known as the Genuine Windows Offer, which is targeted at those people who are genuine victims of counterfeit Windows software and who would thus be unable to pass the validation process. There are two options for those users: Firstly, Microsoft will give a free copy of the software to those users who can provide proof of purchase, the original counterfeit CD, and who have filed a counterfeit report. The second option available to those users who fail the validation process is to buy a legitimate product key from Microsoft at a cost of $99 for Windows XP Home and $149 for Windows XP Pro, both of which are lower than the full retail price. They will also have to file a counterfeit report. These users' systems will also be scanned to make sure they still have all the original, intact, unaltered Windows system files on their machine. If they do not, usually because these were changed to enable the download of the counterfeit software, Microsoft will send them a new copy of the product rather than converting their license online. Lazar stressed that the validation process is "an anonymous process, as our Privacy Statement is very strict and says that we do not collect any information that can be used to identify or contact the user." He says he also felt that Microsoft has done a good job addressing customers' privacy concerns by starting off slowly, allowing users to opt-in and with a limited number of languages, and rolling the plan out in a measured way to let customers get used to the idea. "We have also done an audit with TÜV-IT, a German IT consulting firm, and they have certified our privacy policy by auditing our practices and databases to ensure that we are sticking to that policy. We think that will allay any privacy concerns," he said. Asked why Microsoft used a German consulting firm rather than an American one to certify its privacy policy, Lazar said privacy concerns are at the forefront in Europe, and that German privacy laws are very strict. If Microsoft meets that rigorous standard, its customers should be reassured about its commitment, he said. Microsoft is also offering Genuine Windows customers "freebies and discounts worth $450, including things like Photo Storage 3 and discounts on Web hosting for small businesses," he said. With regard to the brouhaha that arose around Wine, an open source implementation of the Windows application programming interface that allows Windows applications to run on Unix and Linux, Lazar said "the confusion there stems from the fact that people felt that Wine users should be able to run Office and receive Office updates. "Running Office on top of Wine is a totally legitimate use of our licensing, and Office updates are totally available to Wine users. But what we are not going to do is provide updates to Windows for Wine users. Those users need to get those updates from the community that builds and supports Wine," he said. Asked how much revenue Microsoft hoped to derive from getting some users of pirated or illegal Windows software to go legal, Lazar said that while Microsoft had some thoughts on that matter, the most important goal is for customers to recognize the difference and to ask for Genuine Windows when they buy a new system. While the piracy rate in the United States is not as high as elsewhere in the world, the absolute volume of systems involved is the same in China and as in the United States. Bonnie MacNaughton, the lead attorney for Microsoft's U.S. anti-piracy enforcement program, told eWEEK that there would be between 12 million and 13 million unlicensed new PCs in the United States in the coming year, which "is an enormous problem for us. I think a substantial percentage of those customers will not know that the have illegal software," she said. MacNaughton, whose group also deals with education and engineering, including product activation technologies and the edge-to-edge holographic designs Microsoft uses on its discs to minimize the ability of people to counterfeit its software, said the Windows Genuine Advantage program slots into the education side and that a Website has been developed to help customers determine if their software is genuine. "The WGA program takes that educational component to the next level by giving customers an online tool to validate their software and to understand whether they in fact received what they paid for." A recent study by the Business Software Alliance and research firm IDC found that the worldwide piracy rate is 36 percent, and in the United States, the rate is a "staggering" 22 percent, MacNaughton said. The full BSA/IDC piracy report is available online in PDF form. "A fifth of the computers in the United States are running illegal software, and this is a problem costing the global economy more than $31 billion on an annual basis. WGA is one of the activities we are engaging in to address the educational program around this," she said. UKFast is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.

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