Vista: Locked down

Canadian businesses will be changing the way they activate Windows as part of an anti-piracy technology from Microsoft that will shut down unlicensed versions of the forthcoming Vista operating system.

The software firm on Wednesday announced its software protection platform, which will aim to control distribution of the “keys” that allow users to run Windows on a given desktop. In most businesses, for example, a company is given a set of keys that will activate multiple Windows-based PCs. If the number of one of those keys gets jotted down on a piece of paper or is otherwise accessed by an unauthorized user, however, it is possible to use it over and over to activate pirated copies of Microsoft software.

For small and medium-sized businesses, Vista will offer a multiple-key activation service, or MAC. These users will be given a key that allows them to activate a Vista-based PC no more than, say, 20 times. Each time it is used, that number goes down until it can’t be used any more.

At the enterprise level, where software licences are managed on a specific server, Microsoft customers will use a key management service (KMS). This service will automatically activate Windows Vista on a PC as a user logs on, but will require that it be “reactivated” in 180 days.

“It’s like a double check, to make sure you’re running a genuine copy of Windows,” explained Elliot Katz, product manager for the Windows client at Mississauga, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada. “If you fail activation – and this will be true of any kind of Vista activation – you’ll have a 30-day grace period.”

Users will be notified with pop-up window in the corner of their screen. If they fail to let their IT manager know or take any other action, the PC will function in what Katz described as a “reduced state,” logging them out after about an hour.

The software protection platform is in some ways an evolution of Genuine Advantage, a program Microsoft introduced with Windows XP that forced users to verify their copy of Windows was legitimate whenever they accessed an online service such as Windows Update.

Katz said Microsoft uses education, enforcement and engineering to tackle software piracy, and the software protection platform is an example of the engineering component.

“With Windows Genuine Advantage we said if they were running the real stuff, they would get real support from Microsoft,” he said. “With Vista, we have the opportunity to really take it to the next level.”

Microsoft’s Canadian channel partners immediately cheered the move.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Tyler Bourns, president of Regina-based system builder PC Place. “There are a lot of students and computer hackers that just won’t buy (licensed) software, or there’s the people who spend copious hours looking for hacks and cracks in the system.”

Although it caused some controversy when it was lauched, Bourns said Windows Genuine Advantage has been helpful to his business, particularly PC Place’s service department. “Customers would come in with the pop-up,” he said, referring to a notification that appears on machines running unlicensed versions of Windows XP. “There was an annoying message that wouldn’t go away. There were many people running these bad copies of Windows and didn’t even know it, because they got a friend or their next-door-neighbour’s kid, who was a computer whiz, to set them up.”

Barry Johnson, president of FrontierPC in Vancouver, said his city was a hotbed of piracy, where the use of illegitimate software has cut into his profits.

“When you hear that Office is being installed for $500, you know that something is going on,” he said. “Microsoft is going about it the right way . . . with XP, it would continue to work, but (the notifications) would just constantly annoy you. In Vista, it will just shut it down.”

Info-Tech senior analyst Carmy Levy in London, Ont., said getting a better handle on unencrypted keys was a big challenge for Microsoft, which the software protection platform may finally address.

“It will certainly put a dent in things,” he said. “Anti-piracy is a lot like cops and robbers. The cops come up with a new technique to thwart crime, and criminals come up with a technique to conquer that . . . they will eventually learn how to bypass it in some way.”

Johnson said another potential solution would be to put licence agreements in layman’s terms that people would understand, rather than asking them to consent to the terms and conditions because they are required.

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