Microsoft Nags U.S. Users Of Fake Windows

Apr 25, 2006 (12:04 PM EDT)

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Microsoft on Tuesday expanded its anti-piracy efforts by unveiling a tool that puts "nag" messages on the screens of computers running bogus copies of Windows.

The "Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications" tool displays a message when users of counterfeit Windows log on. "It appears that you could be a victim of software piracy. The copy of Windows installed on this computer is not considered to be genuine by Microsoft," the initial dialog box message reads. "The notification will continue to display until your computer is running genuine Microsoft Windows."

A similar message pops up at random times from the system tray section of the Windows taskbar.

If users choose to ignore the warning -- a "Resolve me later" button is available from the log-on dialog -- Windows plants a permanent banner at the bottom of the screen that reads "You might be the victim of software piracy. The copy of Windows installed on this computer is not considered to be genuine by Microsoft."

All the messages will lead users to a Web site where Microsoft pitches the benefits of legit Windows, and describes its previously-announced offers for free or reduced-price copies of Windows XP Home and Professional.

The tool has been used by Microsoft in a pilot program involving seven countries since November 2005, but on Tuesday it was extended to the U.S., U.K., Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications won't be immediately pushed to everyone in those markets, but for those randomly chosen, Microsoft will put the tool in the "High-priority updates" section of Windows Update's and Microsoft Update's selections. (However, out of four machines used by various TechWeb reporters, however, all four were "picked" for the download.)

For the moment, users can decline to download and install the pirate alert. But that may not last long. "While the program is presently opt-in, as it expands later in the year, it may become a requirement for the AU [Automatic Updates] service," Microsoft said in a FAQ on its Web site.

Users who have set Automatic Updates -- the mechanism Microsoft's recommended Windows users apply to receive security (and other) updates -- to the "Automatic (recommended)" option must decline the EULA (End User License Agreement) for the tool by clicking the "I decline" button to sidestep the download and installation.

Once installed, Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications can't be uninstalled.

"This is phase 2," said Joe Wilcox, an analyst with JupiterResearch. "Phase 1 was withholding certain things, such as downloads. But that wasn't going to make sure that people get legal, so they went on to the next phase. Now Microsoft's going to remind them at boot, when the system wakes from sleep, that there's something funky about their Windows."

Microsoft may be anticipating a backlash about the tool, for in its FAQ it answered the leading question of "Why is Microsoft including WGA Notifications through Automatic Updates? Isn’t this an invasion of privacy for users?"

"We have received feedback from customers that they appreciate the ability to determine whether or not their reseller sold them a genuine version of Windows. Providing WGA through AU will simplify the validation process for customers," said Microsoft.

While the stick is clearly the piracy checker, Microsoft's carrot for users of legitimate Windows is access to Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Defender, the company's in-development browser and anti-spyware software, respectively.

"Microsoft is limiting IE 7 and Windows Defender updates for non-genuine users," the company said on its Web site. Windows Vista, scheduled for general release in January 2007, will have an even bigger carrot: its Aero Glass interface will run only on valid copies of the operating system.

"Microsoft thinks it's time to tell people that they've been a naughty boy," said JupiterResearch's Wilcox. "My expectation is that they'll get more aggressive [in anti-piracy] than not."

By its move Tuesday, Microsoft's already started.