Thursday, November 23, 2006

Microsoft’s Vista and Office 2007: bad news for pirates

Can Microsoft’s latest anti-piracy protections really stop the Vista and Office 2007 pirates, or will pirates finally have to walk the plank?

Efforts to stamp out piracy have been with computers since it became possible to make a copy of a program and run it on another computer successfully. Anti-piracy software, code wheels, license keys, hardware dongles and more all failed in some way, either through the use of a master key code, a crack that turned trial software into the full version, removed the check for dongles, or somehow picked the lock of anti-protections.

But now that almost all computers and an increasing array of electronic devices are almost permanently connected to the Internet, or can be wirelessly Net connected in just a few seconds, anti-piracy features that are delivered and updated over the Internet are starting to change this forever.

Copies of Vista and Office 2007 installed from a friend’s CD or DVD will need a valid license key within 30 days or will enter into a ‘reduced functionality mode’, severely limited the ability to use the software. This is actually nothing new, with XP and Office 2003 already having these features for years.

But with the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) and the nearly 18 month old Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) program in full swing, even if pirates are able to ‘crack’ copies of Vista and Office 2007 to work without activation, if you want to get Vista and Office updates, you’ll be subjected to a Genuine Advantage check. If you don’t pass, you don’t get updates.

With Vista, it might get more serious that than. The Software Protection Program (SPP) may kick in and give you nothing but a browser screen and Internet access (if it’s already automatically on), and logging you out after an hour. You can keep logging in every hour, but with only access to one browser window, you’ll need to make your software legitimate, either by buying a license key online there and then with a credit card, or loading a licensed copy of Vista from DVD.

That’s what already happens after 30 days with Vista if you haven’t activated your copy, but if Microsoft could detect that your copy was pirated with some kind of crack, they could easily get this to activate immediately or with very little warning.

If that happens to pirates, they won’t be very happy, and what will ensue is a tit-for-tat war between pirates and Microsoft, with the pirates breaking the protections and then Microsoft identifying the pirate copy and the cycle starting again, virtually ad infinitum like a guerrilla war.

It’s Microsoft against not only the software pirate ‘rebel’ insurgents, but all those other companies offering free, cheaper or just different alternate versions, like Mac OS X against XP and Vista, Corel’s Wordperfect Suite against Office or Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets against office.

And as Microsoft is planning to license the SPP system to other companies, some of whom are building their own version of the same thing, it’s going to get a lot harder for the pirates to use their pirated software in peace. There’s also always the chance that the WGA or OGA systems are malfunctioning or hacked, and your legitimate copies are flagged as pirate copies, with this already happening earlier on during the WGA program.

But if this happened on any scale again, Microsoft would theoretically scramble to fix it as quickly as possible, especially if it was widespread, as news would leak and people would report problems to journalists if they didn’t get any positive action to fix the problem.

With much of the world’s software empires having some form of pirate user base, with Windows and Office being two big examples of software that has always been highly pirated, people used to using Microsoft software free of charge to save a few bucks will either have to put up with older versions, actually pay for a licensed copy, try a free or a cheaper alternative, or play the piracy game with Microsoft and the software coders that try to get around the protections.

The goal of a PC on every desk, while not globally fulfilled with billions yet to use a PC, has been nevertheless so successful that it has still given Microsoft billions of dollars in revenues and profits, while giving users all kinds of new capabilities even if they were intertwined with the occasional Blue Screen of Death.

One school of thought says that Microsoft would sell hundreds of millions more copies if only the software was cheaper – imagine if Windows Ultimate was only US $99. Why wouldn’t you buy it? At US $399, and $759 in Australia, it’s not hard to imagine why pirates might want to avoid paying. But in a free market, a company is free to charge what it chooses, with competition providing the incentive to keep prices low.

But even with free operating systems and alternate office suites, browsers and plenty of other free or inexpensive software out there, Microsoft is still the people’s choice with a 90%+ installed user base.

Yes, part of the user base was made up of pirate copies, but that helped, over the years, to turn Microsoft software into the most widely used standard. Of course, hundreds of millions of legitimate sales did that too, with Microsoft reaping rich rewards and becoming the world’s No.1 software company.

Now that most users are connected to the Internet, Microsoft can enforce the licensed use of their software much more easily than ever before. If you’ve pirated in the past and want to keep on using Microsoft’s latest software, well... this time around, you might just find yourself paying, whether by buying retail copies, or getting Vista and Office pre-installed (at much cheaper rates than boxed retail copies when subtracted from the cost of the hardware) on a brand new desktop or laptop PC.

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