Windows Genuine Nagging

by on July 5, 2006 · 4 comments

The BBC reports on Microsoft’s new anti-piracy “tool,” Windows Genuine Advantage, which is automatically installed on users’ computers when they download the latest software updates:

The tool is downloaded and installed voluntarily but Microsoft has said it could become mandatory in the future.

Blogs and forums have been hit with comments and queries about the tool.

The tool was downloaded as part of a wave of security updates Microsoft offered to users. If it is not installed Windows XP will periodically remind people to download and run the program.

According to a friend of mine who administers Windows-based computers for a living, this isn’t really true. If you decline to install WGA, Microsoft blocks you from receiving subsequent software updates. Given how often security vulnerabilities are found in Windows, that amounts to a death sentence, as unpatched Windows machines are usually hacked in a matter of days.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t Microsoft’s first anti-piracy “tool” on Windows XP. When XP was released, it included product activation, which tied your copy of Windows to your hardware and refused to function if the same software was installed on different hardware (or if your hardware configuration changed too much). The problem was that pirates just modified cracked versions of Windows to omit the activation “feature.”

WGA may prove more effective than product activation did precisely because it’s based on controlling access to a service (Windows Update) rather than trying to prevent copying directly. This is how Red Hat makes a lot of its money, for example: give the software away, but charge for regular updates.

On the other hand, there’s a risk that a lot of users will just shrug and stop using Windows Update. Which would be stupid, but many users may not realize the dangers until their computers get hacked. In fact, they may not realize it even after their computers are hacked, as many hacked computers get used for botnets without the user’s knowledge. Discouraging the use of Windows Update may simply make a lot of peoples’ computers more vulnerable.

Update: Matt Cline comments that Windows users do still have access to “critical updates,” they’re just blocked from receiving other updates. So I stand corrected on the botnet issue. On the other hand, I do think characterizing the program as “voluntary” is a bit of a stretch when users will be cut off from non-critical bug fixes and enhancements if they decline to participate in the program.

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