Thursday, October 23, 2008

Genuine Advantage

If many hundreds of thousands of other people had not already done so, I would be more than willing to be the first person to admit that the advantage in Microsoft's Genuine Advantage program is almost entirely Microsoft's.  Oh, Microsoft can try to spin the moniker in such a way that there is a huge advantage to each and every user knowing that their own copy of Windows is really, really licensed by Microsoft.  But even I know that the real advantage of the program is that Microsoft gets to try and collect more of the license fees that they are owed.

I will also admit that the best approach to take may not be to temporarily disable a user's computer as a result of a first time failure when the genuine advantage tool is run on a computer.  Effectively shutting down the OS in such cases does not build the best relationships with customers.  However, it is a right that they have.  If you use Windows on your computer, you have an agreement with Microsoft that you will abide by the licensing terms that come with their software.  If they feel the best results in preventing pirated copies of Windows are gained by blanking the screen of computers running illegal copies, it is their prerogative.  I can't say I necessarily agree with the business logic, but I would guess they have spent more time thinking about it than I have.

Recently, strong emotions are rising again to the latest changes in how the Genuine Advantage software enforces licensing.  I just don't happen to agree with most of the people voicing their opinions.  "Why is Microsoft  automatically connected to my computer?  The computer is mine!"  When it comes down to it, Microsoft is not automatically connected to your computer.  You made the decision to buy a computer with Microsoft software on it.  Microsoft would not be connected at all if you bought an Apple or installed any one of the flavors of 'nix.  When you use Microsoft software, you are subject to the terms of their licenses and one of the terms of using their software updater is that you must have a legitimate copy of Windows and run Genuine Advantage to verify it.

"Microsoft has no right to control my hardware without my agreement." Um, now that you mention it, that is the exact purpose of an operating system and software, to make the hardware do useful things.  You agreed to let the software control the hardware when you bought the computer or installed the operating system.  You don't seem to mind that Microsoft is controlling your hardware when your business tools, internet applications and games are all working.  That may be a bit flip, but if you don't take the time to verify you are running a legitimate copy of Windows, why should that software perform it's job for you?  Countless pieces of software in the world shut themselves down if they are not bought in a certain amount of time.  What gives users the right to expect anything different from Windows?

"If the price of genuine software was lower than the fake one, who would buy the fake one?"  The total cost of copying of an operating system, even one that needs to be modified in order to work without a license, is such a small fraction of a percentage of creating the operating system in the first place that to match the monetary price of a fake, the OS would need to be given away for free.  Some organizations do just that.  If you want a free operating system, feel free to download any one of the many that are available.  Unfortunately there are many reasons why Microsoft can not give away their operating system at the moment.

"If, when I am programming, the computer screen goes black, that will probably cause some important information to be lost.  Who will pay me for my loss then?"  I had a few different responses to this one.  As a professional developer writing my own software, I feel this person can't be a very good programmer if when his computer stops, he loses a lot of work.  He should save early and often, use source control, make backups, have a disaster recovery plan, etc. etc.  Microsoft should be the least of your worries when it comes to losing work.  On a less critical note, the speaker may be expecting the software to issue a warning, give the user a chance to save and then slowly start reducing functionality.  This goes back to the argument that blanking the screen might not be the best approach for dealing with users that came by their unlicensed version of Windows unwittingly. Taken yet another way the statement could possibly be the most hypocritical I have seen on this topic.  A programmer expecting to be paid for his time and work complaining that another software company can not take measures to ensure that they receive what is due to them.

There are even some lawyers that want to get something out of this.  A surprise, I know.  I also know that not all lawyers are greedy and evil, but hey, it's the stereotype.  "[Microsoft is the] biggest hacker in China with its intrusion into users' computer systems without their agreement or any judicial authority...  Microsoft's measure will cause serious functional damage to users' computers and, according to China's criminal law, the company can stand accused of breaching and hacking into computer systems."  Microsoft is not hacking into your computer.  You installed the software or bought the computer of your own free will.  The software was already there, it did not need to be hacked.  Furthermore, Microsoft is not damaging the computer in any way whatsoever, they are just making Windows show a black screen.  You can buy a legitimate copy of Windows and install it or you can uninstall Windows and install another operating system and your computer will continue to work fine.

Many better informed individuals do understand that Microsoft does have the right to protect its intellectual property, but they feel that such tactics can harm users who turn out to be the victims of less scrupulous resellers offering fakes disguised as originals.  To this they say that Microsoft should be going after the distributors.  And while I agree, it seems naive to expect Microsoft to be able to do this without the end user's help.  And evidently users are not helping or else the problem would not be so rampant in parts of the world that Microsoft feels the need to resort to such tactics.

On a day when my belief in the general good nature of people is at a low, I would say that all of these arguments are flimsy justifications from people that deep down are just trying to get something for nothing.  Like it or not, Microsoft is in the operating system business and so they charge money for their product.  There are many discussions that can be had about whether or not paying for operating systems at all is a concept past its time.  But for now, if you want to gain the benefits of using the operating system that has the largest ecosystem of supported hardware, software publishers and users; legally obtaining the licenses to do so requires that you pay for them.

On a good day, I see these reactions coming from people that are ignorant of how computers work, ignorant of where their software came from, or ignorant of how to fix the problem.  But even on a good day, I sense these people don't seem to care to become knowledgeable.  Microsoft does try to inform people in less invasive ways that give you a chance to fix the problem before the operating system is rendered useless.  When an activation key is mistyped, Windows shows links to information.  A simple Google search quickly lands you on the Genuine Advantage website.  The Genuine Advantage tool gives more information before it even runs.  All of these places contain information with straight forward instructions on how to test your OS and what to do if that test fails.  Despite all of this information, people would rather blame Microsoft than take responsibility for their lack of information, their choice in software or their choice in computer vendors.

Thanks to Reuters for the original story.

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