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Microsoft Corp., stung by criticism over the daily phone-home feature within its Windows Genuine Advantage tool, released on Tuesday an upgrade of the anti-piracy software that communicates less with the company's server.
In addition, Microsoft replaced the end user license agreement with one that the company said more clearly explains the purpose of the software and how it operates.
The Redmond, Wash., company came under fire this month following media reports that WGA communicated with Microsoft each time a PC connected to the Internet. In addition, critics complained that the company mislabeled the software as a "critical update" when it was distributed through the Windows Update feature in XP, and then gave no way to remove it.
Microsoft at the time acknowledged that it made mistakes in trying to get WGA in as many PCs as possible and promised to make changes. In general, WGA checks that the version of Windows XP running on a PC is a legal copy.
To correct previous mistakes, the WGA upgrade no longer calls to Microsoft servers each time a computer launches on the Web. Instead, the software will validate the copy of Windows when first installed, and only run the check again when a new version of the tool is deployed.
In addition, WGA would be distributed as a "high priority" update, rather than a "critical update," and a preamble added to the end user license agreement provides a high-level summary of the program, its purpose and functions.
Finally, Microsoft also made available instructions for people who downloaded the previous version and wished to remove it. The instructions were available through the knowledge base on Microsoft's support site, using the KB number 921914.
Installing the anti-piracy software is not mandatory, but the version of Windows XP running on a computer must be validated before updates are installed via Microsoft's Automatic Updates and Windows Update features, or Microsoft update Web sites. If WGA finds that the version of Windows is not legal, the PC users can still get critical security updates, but nothing else. Those with invalid copies are notified through the tool, which directs them to resources for obtaining a valid copy of XP.
Lauren Weinstein, co-founder for the advocacy group People for Internet Responsibility, said the changes were an improvement, but didn't address the broader issue of how far a vendor can go in protecting themselves against piracy, while not infringing on PC owners' rights to privacy and to control communications between their machines and vendors' remote systems.
"This whole controversy is one of those teachable moments where you can use them as good examples of broader issues," Weinstein said. "It points us at a bigger problem."
To protect the rights of all parties, consumer groups, high-tech vendors and lawmakers would have to work together toward a compromise. If the high-tech industry goes it alone, it risks angering consumers, which could lead to a backlash in the marketplace and from government.
"I do have this sense that people are really starting to feel that this is all getting too complicated, and that's not a good thing for the industry," Weinstein said. "You want to go after pirates, but worst thing you can do is upset the innocent."
The update release on Tuesday marked the end of Microsoft's WGA pilot program, which has been rolled out in phases since November 2005. The company plans to gradually make the tool generally available worldwide.