Microsoft to Step Up Anti-Piracy Stance

October 13, 2006 0

Anti-piracy tech shuts people out of their PCs if the OS is not activated soon after installation.
Microsoft of late said that it will build anti-piracy features into its upcoming Windows Vista operating system and Windows Longhorn server software.

People running pirated versions of Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Vista operating system and Windows Longhorn server software will face having the programs rendered inactive, the company said this week. Freshly installed software must be registered with its maker or it will operate in what the software giant is calling "reduced functionality mode," as Windows XP does now without being registered. If it is not registered within 30 days of installation it will cease to function, Microsoft is warning.

Limited Access
The world’s largest software maker lately said that people running an unlicensed copy of Vista that it believes is pirated will initially be denied access to some of the most anticipated features of the operating system.

People who do not register and validate Vista with Microsoft will still have access to critical security updates, but they would not have access to Aero, a graphics technology, ReadyBoost, a removable flash memory, and Defender, a protection against pop-ups, spyware and malware.

Vista and Longhorn are the first two products that will ship with the anti-piracy features, but Microsoft said more of its products will include the technology in the future.

If a legitimate copy is not bought within 30 days, the system will curtail functionality much further by restricting users to just the Web browser for an hour at a time, said Thomas Lindeman, Microsoft senior product manager.

Under that scenario, a person could use the browser to surf the Web, access documents on the hard drive or log onto Web-based e-mail. But the user would not be able to directly open documents from the computer desktop or run other programs such as Outlook e-mail software, Lindeman said.

Microsoft said it would not stop a computer running pirated Vista software from working completely, and it will continue to deliver critical security updates.

"I think that at one level, the measures seem somewhat Draconian to me. On another level, from a business standpoint and an intellectual property standpoint, the company is perfectly legally and morally justified in protecting its assets," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, an IT analysis firm.

Still, the much harsher tactics contrast to Microsoft’s earlier anti-piracy measures, which have involved instituting tougher piracy checks for Windows XP users who want to get free add-ons such as anti-spyware programs. In most cases, these were seen as annoying, rather than debilitating.

However, he said he would like Microsoft to be more forthcoming with details of the mechanics the company will be using to pull the anti-piracy functions off. "I do wonder if the strategy and the technology are going to work," he said. "I hope that the way that it is deployed is essentially bulletproof. I think if any group of legitimate Windows users ends up having their system compromised incorrectly, this could result in a very big black eye for Microsoft."

The new technology is part of Microsoft’s new "Software Protection Platform," which the company plans to announce soon. It will be part of future versions of all Microsoft products, but debuts in Windows Vista and Windows Server "Longhorn," said Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Software Initiative. Vista, the successor to Windows XP, is slated to be broadly available in January.

Microsoft has escalated its battle with software pirates during the past two years through the "Genuine Advantage" add-ons for Windows and Office, its biggest cash cows. The company is now expanding its push by baking antipiracy features into its new products and taking more drastic action when it finds that a product was illegitimately acquired.

Many users should not be confronted by Vista’s antipiracy technology, however. People who buy a PC with Vista installed from companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Gateway, for example, should find the operating system activated already.

“Everything is going to be good to go right out of the box,” Hartje said. “This is more for those who install after the fact.”

Analyst Roger Kay with Endpoint Technologies Associates said Microsoft has a right to curtail illegal distribution of its software. The new piracy measures, he said, "seem harsh only in comparison to how lenient it has been."

Nevertheless, Kay said he expects that the anti-piracy tactics will keep some people from upgrading to Vista from the current operating system, Windows XP. "There will be an XP backlash, which is to say people clinging to XP in order to avoid this," he said.

Windows Vista also will include more sophisticated technology for monitoring whether a system is pirated. For example, the system will be able to perform some piracy checks internally, without contacting Microsoft, Lindeman said.

Those who install Vista themselves, for example on existing PCs, will have a 30-day period to activate the operating system and validate with Microsoft that they have a legitimate license. "During those 30 days, you get warning messages, it counts down. During the last three days they get very frequent," Lindeman said.

If ignored, after 30 days Vista will display four options. The first will allow the user to activate online, the second is to run in reduced functionality mode, the third is to enter a product key and the fourth displays instructions to activate by phone, Lindeman said.

Barring people from using their PC is a significant change from the antipiracy features that Microsoft bolted on to Windows XP with Windows Genuine Advantage. In XP, the piracy-busting features only put a block on downloading additional programs from Microsoft’s Web sites.

Kay also does not expect the new piracy measures to be that effective against hardcore pirates, who have built de facto businesses selling illegal Windows copies. But he thinks it will stop some lower-level piracy.

Widespread Problem
Windows XP also included product activation, but people could still use their machine in "safe mode" if the operating system was not activated. Moreover, no activation was required if a volume license key was used, the most popular way of pirating Windows. Starting with Vista, Microsoft will no longer give out those types of license keys, which are typically used by larger organizations.

"Piracy is one of the most significant problems facing the software industry," Hartje said. More than a third of all software installed last year was pirated or unlicensed, she said, citing figures from the Business Software Alliance, a software industry group.

Microsoft also is adding ways to more closely monitor for piracy among big corporate users, who tend to buy licenses in bulk.

As part of the increased effort to make it harder to pirate its products, Microsoft is also changing the way businesses license its software. New licensing systems will replace the current volume license keys, which have been widely abused, Hartje said. "Fifty percent of the piracy, we think, uses keys issued to volume licensing customers," she said.

Volume license keys are registration codes for products that Microsoft gives out to large organizations in plain text. One key can be used to activate and run an unlimited number of copies of the product, for example Windows XP or Office XP.

Microsoft plans to take similar tough measures with the forthcoming version of its Windows server software, dubbed "Longhorn," and to incorporate it into other products down the road.

The crackdown shows how much more seriously Microsoft has started taking Windows piracy, which for years has been extremely widespread in areas such as Russia and China.

Starting with Vista, Microsoft will offer two different types of keys and offer three different ways to distribute them within an organization. In all cases, some more work will be required on the part of the technology department at a company.

"They will just need to do a little extra planning," Hartje said.

The first type of product key to replace the current system is called "multiple activation key," or MAK. An IT pro at a company can install a key on a machine that will then need to be validated online. Alternatively a proxy can be set up centrally to activate multiple systems at once, according to Microsoft.

The second licensing option is called "key management service," or KMS. This requires the organization to set up a KMS service on the corporate network that will activate client machines. The Vista PCs will silently find the KMS service and activate, according to Microsoft.

It may seem like businesses will have to count all their licenses, but it is really not as bad as it sounds, said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner.

"It has nothing to do with license counting right now, but companies will need to expend time and effort and some money to administer this, in the name of helping Microsoft recoup revenue lost to piracy," he said. "There needs to be more of a benefit (for customers). Linux and Mac communities will try to make hay with this, but this will not be the tipping point."

In recent years, the market for Windows–one of Microsoft’s main cash cows–has become more saturated. That has left the company eager to make money from users who may otherwise have obtained illegal Windows copies.

Hartje said the company now wants users to notice the difference between legal and pirated copies of Vista. "Our goal is to really make a differentiated experience for genuine and non-genuine users," Hartje added.

Microsoft is hoping its latest moves will help it stem the piracy tide. After many delays, Redmond-based Microsoft is expected to release the Vista corporate version in November, and the Consumer version is scheduled to ship in January. Longhorn is set to ship in late 2007.