The skinny on Vista's Software Protection Platform (SPP)

Unlike WGA Notifications which just nagged you, SPP carries a big stick

One aspect of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system that has raised users' hackles is its new anti-piracy system, called Software Protection Platform (SPP). To understand SPP, it's necessary to take a few steps back. Microsoft began its aggressive campaign against software piracy in Office XP and Windows XP with functionality called Office product activation (OPA) and Windows product activation (WPA).

In July of 2005, Microsoft unleashed Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), which required users of Microsoft's Windows Update, Microsoft Update, and Microsoft Download pages to install the first component of WGA, subsequently dubbed WGA Validation. One of the first pieces of software requiring a WGA check was Windows Defender. At that time, Microsoft began requiring that you either installed WGA Validation, or you didn't use any of Microsoft's download sites. (It was still possible to get Microsoft's security patches through Windows XP's Automatic Updates without installing WGA Validation.)

WGA Validation is a piece of code that runs in Windows that determines all on its own whether the installed copy of Windows it's running in might have been pirated or improperly authorized. Earlier this year, Microsoft delivered the second component of WGA, called WGA Notifications. Its purpose is to inform the user that WGA Validation has found a problem with the installed copy of Windows. It also tries to help the user find a solution, including asking for money to re-license Windows.

WGA Notifications ran into a buzz saw of criticism when an early version of it re-connected with Microsoft servers in the background on a daily basis. Even more importantly, there was a wave of reported false positives. WGA Notifications is technically an optional install from Windows Update or Automatic Updates, but the manner in which you choose not to receive it is not intuitive for most users.

WPA and WGA work together on Windows XP machines they're installed on. WGA is also capable of running solo on Windows 2000 computers.

Enter Windows Vista. Microsoft took the opportunity of a new Windows release to unify the processes of WPA, WGA Validation, and WGA Notifications. Possibly because of the bad press WGA received over the summer, the Vista's new anti-piracy system is called Software Protection Platform.

The most overt change in SPP is that Microsoft's anti-piracy measures now have an enforcement action. Whereas WGA Notifications just nagged you, with little negative fallout other than the nagging itself, SPP carries a big stick. After numerous warnings and a grace period, SPP will automatically and without option force Windows Vista into what Microsoft terms "reduced functionality mode" (RFM).

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How SPP works

Perhaps because many of the early reports about SPP and RFM were based on a series of whirlwind press briefings, an online FAQonline FAQ, and later a whitepaper (Word .doc), a lot of conflicting reports attributed different descriptions of how RFM works. We asked Microsoft to provide some clarity on SPP and RFM. Here are the company's answers, relayed by its public relations firm:

What exactly is SPP's reduced functionality mode?

When a user enters RFM, the default Web browser will be started and the user will be presented with an option to purchase a new product key. There is no start menu, no desktop icons, and the desktop background is changed to black. The Web browser will fully function and Internet connectivity will not be blocked. After one hour, the system will automatically log the user out. It will not shut down the machine, and the user can log back in.

How long does RFM last?

Microsoft: RFM lasts until the user remedies the situation. In the event that a system is placed into RFM, there are several remedies available. First, the user can simply follow the prescribed activation process and options described above -- these include entering a new product key, obtaining a new product key or reentering the original product key. For volume-licensing customers, the user can return to normal Windows operating mode by connecting to a Key Management Service (KMS) service to automatically renew the activation or obtain a Multiple Activation Key (MAK). Finally, if the system is in RFM because of hardware changes, the user can restore the original hardware configuration. At any time in the process, a user can contact Microsoft support for additional help.

Does RFM automatically log off users after a period of time?

In RFM, users are logged off of the Internet after one hour of usage.

And does RFM let you log back in later?

Users will be able to immediately log back in.

When does SPP's RFM begin? After 30 days?

A copy of Windows Vista can go into reduced functionality mode under two scenarios:

1. If any of the following events occurs (for each license type):

Retail License (or corporate user with a MAK):

- Failure to activate within the grace period (30 days after installation)

- Failure to renew activation within 3 days of a major hardware replacement

OEM License (or non-volume-license enterprise with OEM-sourced, pre-activated Vista image):

Failure to activate within 3 days of switch to a non-OEM motherboard

Enterprise License using KMS:

- Failure to activate with KMS within 30 days of installation

- Failure to renew activation with KMS within 210 days of previous activation

- Failure to renew activation with KMS within 30 days of hard drive replacement

2. A copy of Windows Vista may be required to reactivate for the following reasons, and failure to successfully reactivate during the 30-day grace period will cause the copy of Windows Vista to go into reduced functionality mode:

The activation process has been determined to have been tampered with or worked around, or other tampering of license files is detected.

A leaked, stolen or prohibited product key is detected that is blocked by Microsoft product activation servers.

Before being placed into RFM, users will always have a grace period to resolve the situation. During the grace period, reminders will pop up to inform them that they must activate within the specified time period or else they will lose Windows functionality. During the last three days of the grace period, the reminders are displayed with increasing frequency.