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Microsoft: Vista piracy rate is half that of XP

Software maker hopes to keep that momentum with Vista Service Pack 1 by closing some loopholes, though it will make things a little less miserable for those with non-genuine Vista.

Microsoft said Monday that it's seeing piracy rates for Windows Vista that are half those of Windows XP.

Now cynical me wanted to write this up as "even pirates prefer XP two to one over Vista," but that wouldn't be fair. In reality, the decline in piracy rates is largely due to the fact that Vista is much tougher to counterfeit than XP.

"Piracy rates are lower because it's harder," Microsoft Vice President Mike Sievert said in an interview Monday.

There are a variety of reasons for that, including the fact that businesses no longer have volume license keys that can be used to activate an unlimited number of machines. Another is the fact that Vista machines that aren't properly activated pretty quickly become basically unusable once they enter "reduced functionality mode."

For Microsoft, the gains have been significant. In its last earnings call, Microsoft said that five percentage points of Windows growth could be attributed to gains in piracy.

Interestingly, though, Microsoft makes the experience a little less harsh for those running pirated versions of Vista. With Service Pack 1, Microsoft is doing away with reduced functionality mode in favor of putting prominent notifications on systems that are not found to be genuine.

Non-genuine systems with SP1 will display a warning at start-up that the system is not properly activated. Users will have the option to "activate now" or "activate later," though the second option won't show up for a time. Users will also have their desktop background changed to white and a prominent notification placed in the lower right hand corner saying that the machine is not genuine.

Still, in a significant change, those with non-genuine or non-activated copies of Vista will still be able to use their systems. Sievert said the change is designed to minimize the impact on customers who might unwittingly have gotten an illegitimate copy of Vista while still discouraging piracy.

"People won't want this experience," he said. "At the same time it will be broadly interpreted as being more fair."

Still, I wonder if the move won't cause Vista piracy rates to trend back up. I would think there are people who will deal with a copy of Vista they don't pay for but that has a big ugly notification on it. With the current Vista, they don't even have that option.

Also with SP1, Microsoft is closing two key loopholes that pirates have used to evade Microsoft's security measures. One involves mimicking the process used by large computer makers to preactivate their Vista machines, while the other extends the grace period that customers have to activate their machine, in some cases extending it for decades. It's not the first time that Microsoft has moved to close holes in its activation process. A year ago, the company changed Vista to disable a hack known as "Frankenbuild" that merged elements of the final Vista with a prerelease version.