Microsoft defends WGA, plans similar tool for Office

Despite the criticism leveled at Microsoft after its recent rollout -- and partial rollback -- of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), that tool was just the first phase in the company's latest antipiracy effort.

The broader Genuine Software Initiative will include a similar campaign, built around a tool called Office Genuine Advantage, to fight piracy of Microsoft's dominant desktop applications suite. Microsoft began testing OGA in April and said last week that the company is "absolutely committed" to going forward with the software, although it wouldn't elaborate on when the tool will be officially released.

WGA, which began an escalated rollout in April, has been criticized as spyware for stealthily installing itself on PCs, sending information back to Microsoft and nagging users who refused to install the tool. The software vendor turned off most of those features in late June.

Reports of WGA falsely crying wolf about legitimate copies of Windows XP have also abounded. Most of the people claiming to be victims have been gamers or PC hobbyists who had upgraded their hardware. But some have been businesses, such as S&S Cycle, a maker of motorcycle racing parts.

Because WGA failed to recognize the company's 180 PCs as legal, it rescanned them every morning and sent back so much data to Microsoft that "our network came to a screeching halt," said S&S network administrator Karen Zander. She eventually fixed the problem by working with Microsoft technical support.

Microsoft responded to the criticisms last week by releasing statistics about WGA's purported effectiveness via blog postings by Alex Kochis, a licensing manager on the WGA team. Kochis claimed that only "a fraction of a percent" of the 60 million or so PCs that have been reported by WGA thus far were running legitimately licensed copies of Windows XP.

Points of failure

A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to say how often the test version of OGA finds false positives. But on its tech-support Web site, Microsoft says that OGA can fail to validate a legitimate copy of Office XP or Office 2003 for a number of reasons, including if a PC's time setting is off by more than 24 hours or if the system registry has been modified or damaged.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, a U.K.-based technology consultant who runs a blog called "The PC Doctor," said OGA mistook his copy of Office for a pirated one after he downloaded and ran the tool. "No idea why I had problems," he said. "I was quite surprised when it said it didn't check out."

Joshua Erdman, president of software reseller Digital Foundation, said that he thinks Microsoft will proceed more cautiously with OGA than it did with the Windows tool.

"Microsoft has almost no competition with Windows," he said. "With Office, it's a lot easier to switch to something like OpenOffice or StarOffice. So Microsoft can't afford to [anger] people as much."

Other observers said that as Microsoft moves toward a hybrid licensing model with both installed software and hosted services, it will need tools like WGA and OGA to continually scan customers' computers and verify that they're covered.

But it has to be careful, warned Lauren Weinstein, an IT consultant and co-founder of the privacy advocacy group People for Internet Responsibility. "Microsoft is starting to tread a thin line that has quite an abyss on either side," Weinstein said. "If people feel that Microsoft is acting too aggressively, they'll find some way to go to other products."

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