Microsoft to cut WGA ‘kill switch’ out of Vista

Brian livingston By Brian Livingston

Microsoft has announced significant changes to its trouble-prone Windows Genuine Advantage technology, beginning with the upcoming Service Pack 1 for Windows Vista.

Unlike Vista’s behavior today, WGA will not disable functions of Vista SP1 if the instance is seen as “nongenuine,” but will instead merely display hourly nag screens inviting users to buy another copy.

Reduced-functionality mode proves problematic

Microsoft announced its changes in WGA only days after Windows Secrets associate editor Scott Dunn published a lead story on Nov. 29 describing problems that have remained in the technology since it was introduced. Among other issues, numerous reports of valid copies of Windows being misidentified by WGA have surfaced. More than 500,000 “false positives” are acknowledged in Microsoft’s own figures, according to a Computerworld article by Gregg Keizer published almost a year ago on Jan. 23, 2007.

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Currently, if an instance of Windows Vista is found by WGA to be “nongenuine,” a number of features are disabled. This includes the Aero user interface, Windows ReadyBoost, and portions of Windows Defender.

If users don’t resolve the matter within 30 days, “reduced-functionality mode” takes over, crippling nearly every Windows function except the browser. This is also known as the Vista “kill switch.” This mode continues for an hour, after which the user is logged out without warning. (WGA is often downloaded and installed by XP users, too, who are required to run it to get some Microsoft downloads. But the negative consequences of failing WGA validation are not as severe as with Vista.)

The Draconian measures will be history for those who install Vista SP1, which is expected in the first quarter of 2008, according to a report in Computerworld.

Under the new scheme, rather than losing some features, a “nongenuine” instance of Vista SP1 will start up with a black screen and a dialog box prompting users to “activate” the operating system or postpone activation to a later date.

Users who choose to postpone will be able to log in and use all of the Vista features, although the desktop background will remain black. Thereafter, users will receive pop-up prompts every hour to complete the activation process. The background will also revert to black if the user changed the color.

The changes are based on feedback from some of Microsoft’s largest customers, many of whom reportedly won’t upgrade to Vista until SP1 is released.

In addition to the change in reduced-functionality mode, SP1 will also attempt to prevent two common hacks that are designed to get around requirements for Vista product activation and WGA validation:

• One trick, known as the OEM BIOS exploit, fools Vista into thinking a computer’s motherboard came from a recognized Microsoft OEM system builder, such as Dell, which doesn’t require activation.

• Another hack, the Grace Timer exploit, resets to a later date (such as 2099) the deadline when Vista will require activation.

“SP1 will include updates that will target those exploits and disable them,” comments Michael Sievert, corporate VP of Windows product marketing, in a Microsoft press statement. Sievert also says the changes will be part of Windows Server 2008, to be released next year.

Although the company’s goal is to combat privacy, Sievert says, “we always want to be mindful of our customers and their experience with Windows, and operate the WGA program to be as responsive as possible to feedback we hear.”

WGA and product activation hit ‘personal use’

In my view, it’s questionable whether product activation and WGA validation, as practiced by Microsoft, are more of an inconvenience for mass pirates or legitimate, individual users. True large-scale pirates know how to produce thousands of copies that will validate (at least long enough to sell the copies to hapless consumers). Product activation, as it’s implemented in Windows, is primarily designed to keep families from purchasing one copy of Windows and making a second copy on a kid’s PC.

For hundreds of years, buyers have enjoyed a legal right to make copies of copyrighted works for personal use only, as I previously described on Mar. 8, 2007. Honoring this principle, various versions of MS Office permit up to three copies to be validated. Windows, which is used by far more people than Office, has never observed a fair-use exemption.

The very fact that I need to use the redundant term “mass piracy,” when what I mean is “piracy,” shows how far lawyers for Microsoft and other large software companies have come in redefining fair use as piracy. By definition, copying isn’t piracy unless it’s done in quantity and for commercial gain. But this isn’t what we hear in the mainstream media about piracy, because Microsoft has a long-running campaign to make personal-use copying of a product that a family has legitimately purchased seem to be piracy.

For this reason, I don’t consider it accurate to call WGA an “anti-piracy” technology (which is the tagline written into most press accounts). It’s certainly an “anti-copying” tool, to use a neutral term, but is arguably more of an “anti-fair-use” scheme. Windows should be seen as improperly restricting age-old consumer rights that have long been explicit in copyright laws.

In addition to the philosophical concerns, product activation causes serious technical problems as well. Both XP and Vista require a new activation round when too many hardware changes are made over time. This has caused many systems to go into shutdown mode simply because of routine modifications. (If this ever happens to you, calling the 24-hour number that Microsoft displays and explaining your situation will usually get you a new activation code, gratis.)

In my opinion, Microsoft has lost more in sales due to the hassles of product activation — and loses more money on telephone support — than it gains by preventing fair use (personal-use copies) by families.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2007-12-06: