Greetings. In the wake of the controversy triggered by my earlier discussions regarding Microsoft's "Windows Genuine Advantage" (WGA) behavior, (June 5, June 6), I've received a lot of e-mail from folks who assert that they are being unfairly tagged by Microsoft WGA as having illicit systems, with continuing warning messages and attendant future restrictions on their ability to obtain non-critical updates.
As I've noted previously, I have no sympathy for genuine pirates. However, there is a common thread running through many of the reports I'm seeing, suggesting that innocent users may easily end up with "pirate" versions of XP without their knowledge, and with no entirely clear and practical path to rectifying the situation.
The scenario is obvious once you think about it. People start off with the legit copies of the Microsoft OS that come pre-installed on their computers (relatively few people ever install their own OS, or would care to risk the process in any case -- most use what comes on their machines). The OS copy is legal, authenticated, and paid for as part of the system.
Now the trouble starts. They have a disk crash or other serious system problem. They take their computer back to the store's repair depot, or to a third party computer repair entity. The computer is fixed and seems to be fine again. Then suddenly, they start receiving WGA piracy warnings.
Why? It appears that it is exceedingly common for repair operations to reinstall based on "cloned" or otherwise duplicated copies of the Microsoft OS, rather than try to restore or reauthenticate based on the original users' OS serial numbers or authentication codes. Original restore disks and key information cards/labels are frequently missing, making it difficult to duplicate the original authentication environment.
Service depots tend to frequently have a working configuration that they can easily clone to repaired systems, and since the user originally paid for one copy of the OS (with their computer, now wiped out as part of the repair process), and ends up with a single copy afterwards, it's not like there's now an additional copy in use.
Once their systems have been flagged by WGA, users may have a serious dilemma, even if MS is willing to provide clean versions of the OS to persons who can demonstrate that they are unwilling "piracy" victims. Most of these users don't have original "pirated" disks to send over to MS. In fact, such users are likely not to understand what is going on at all in this respect, since -- as far as they knew -- their systems had simply been fixed and then were working fine -- until WGA kicked in, that is.
If MS could provide such users with a simple way to update their authentication keys that might be one solution, but an alternative such as having to completely reinstall a fresh copy of the OS would be completely beyond the pale for most users.
I have not yet received a response from officials at Microsoft to e-mail I sent several days ago, asking specifically how they intended to deal with these kinds of WGA situations.
As Microsoft ramps up WGA enforcement, we are likely to see scenarios such as these -- involving innocent users -- appearing in potentially very large numbers.
Blog Update (June 15, 2006): Microsoft Responds Regarding Innocent Users and Windows Genuine Advantage