A Genuine Pain in the Neck

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-01-28

Its funny to read how Microsoft is apparently going ahead with plans to let hackers help the company battle pirates. What else can you call a program that denies security fixes to users whose systems havent been certified "genuine" by Microsoft? The idea, I think, is for these machines to sit around unprotected until they eventually become useless under the weight of malware.

That would presumably happen sometime before the machine would need rebuilding anyway, as Windows machines just eventually seem to quit, victims of the vile system registry. The death march is faster if you frequently install and remove applications, but it seems to happen to every machine eventually. This is the computing equivalent of how some doctors say that everyone will eventually get Alzheimers—if something else doesnt get them first.

Still, before the unprotected machines became useless, they would likely become public nuisances, spewing out spam and malware in search of other unprotected machines or stupid users. That is if the pirates dont find some way around this "Genuine Microsoft Software" verification program that apparently is fast going down the road from voluntary to mandatory.

My colleague, Larry Seltzer, wrote a column in which he described the Genuine Microsoft program and said participating was no big deal for Microsofts customers. Heres some of what he said:

Some analysts see considerable risk in Microsofts "Windows Genuine Advantage" initiative. Click here to read more.

"When you want to download some Microsoft updates you will need to run an ActiveX control that confirms your copy of Windows XP is activated and legal. … If you have a legal and activated copy of Windows, the process is over before you know it, and you never have to go through it again on that computer."

What Larry didnt mention is that the ActiveX control asks you to do something the software ought to be able to do on its own. Namely, find and enter the zillion-character Product Key that came with your system or copy of Windows XP. OK, its really only 25 characters, but its longer and more random than can be easily memorized.

I mention this because Ive just purchased a brand new Dell desktop, which is about as Genuine Microsoft as a PC gets. But Microsoft still wants me to enter the Product Key just to make someone in Redmond happy that my OS is genuine and Dell isnt ripping them off. Frankly, thats between Bill Gates and Michael Dell, and I should not be a party to their relationship.

Especially when doing the Genuine routine does nothing of value for me. And, hey, wasnt this system already authenticated with Microsoft when I first turned it on? How much more "genuine" can it be? Isnt passing authentication enough already?

Youd think Microsoft could just query the machine to prove its authenticity. Instead, the company wants me to enter the Product Key which appears on a sticker that happens to be placed on the bottom left corner of the side panel of the system unit. Which is to say its at ground level, on the side, and in the back.

The chances of me finding a flashlight, putting on my glasses, getting down on my knees and crawling under my desk, then tilting the machine so I can read the numbers out loud for someone else to write down are almost precisely zero.

Having to prove to Microsoft for a second time that my new Dell has a legal copy of Windows XP Pro sounds like a joke. But it appears Microsoft is serious, as in seriously wrong.

As a creator of intellectual property, I am strongly in favor of stopping software pirates. If Redmond wants customers to prove their software is legal, thats fine with me. But it ought to happen only once—when the machine is first turned on or the software is first installed.

Microsoft doesnt need its Genuine program to prove people are running legal software. It already has software authentication and that should be enough.

For more insights from David Coursey, check out his Weblog.

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