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Microsoft to lock pirates out of Vista PCs

Antipiracy tech to shut people out of their PCs if the OS isn't activated soon after installation.

Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Joris Evers covers security.
Joris Evers
4 min read
Windows Vista will have new antipiracy technology that locks people out their PCs if the operating system isn't activated within 30 days after installation.

If Vista is not activated with a legitimate product registration key in time, the system will run in "reduced functionality mode" until it is activated, said Thomas Lindeman, a senior product manager at Microsoft. In this mode, people will be able to use a Web browser for up to an hour, after which time the system will log them out, he said.

The new technology is part of Microsoft's new "Software Protection Platform," which the company plans to announce on Wednesday. It will be part of future versions of all Microsoft products, but debuts in Windows Vista and Windows Server "Longhorn," said Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft's Windows Genuine Software Initiative. Vista, the successor to Windows XP, is slated to be broadly available in January.

Microsoft has escalated its battle with software pirates during the past two years through the "Genuine Advantage" add-ons for Windows and Office, its biggest cash cows. The company is now expanding its push by baking antipiracy features into its new products and taking more drastic action when it finds that a product was illegitimately acquired.

Many users shouldn't be confronted by Vista's antipiracy technology, however. People who buy a PC with Vista installed from companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Gateway, for example, should find the operating system activated already.

"Everything is going to be good to go right out of the box," Hartje said. "This is more for those who install after the fact."

Those who install Vista themselves, for example on existing PCs, will have a 30-day period to activate the operating system and validate with Microsoft that they have a legitimate license. "During those 30 days, you get warning messages, it counts down. During the last three days they get very frequent," Lindeman said.

If ignored, after 30 days Vista will display four options. The first will allow the user to activate online, the second is to run in reduced functionality mode, the third is to enter a product key and the fourth displays instructions to activate by phone, Lindeman said.

"In reduced functionality mode, we will let you use your browser for periods of up to an hour before we log you off," Lindeman said.

Barring people from using their PC is a significant change from the antipiracy features that Microsoft bolted on to Windows XP with Windows Genuine Advantage. In XP, the piracy-busting features only put a block on downloading additional programs from Microsoft's Web sites.

Windows XP also included product activation, but people could still use their machine in "safe mode" if the operating system was not activated. Moreover, no activation was required if a volume license key was used, the most popular way of pirating Windows. Starting with Vista, Microsoft will no longer give out those types of license keys, which are typically used by larger organizations.

"Piracy is one of the most significant problems facing the software industry," Hartje said. More than a third of all software installed last year was pirated or unlicensed, she said, citing figures from the Business Software Alliance, a software industry group.

Microsoft will continue to check if Vista was legitimately acquired, even after activation. This happens, for example, when downloading additional Microsoft programs. Should a license key be deemed illegitimate, the user will be given another 30-day grace period to acquire a legitimate license key, Microsoft said.

During this grace period warnings will be displayed and Vista will block access to the Windows Defender antispyware tool, ReadyBoost memory expansion feature and Aero advanced graphics option, Microsoft said. Also, a persistent text will display in the lower right hand of the screen: "This copy of Windows is not genuine."

If Vista is not validated after the 30 days, the user will again be locked out.

As part of the increased effort to make it harder to pirate its products, Microsoft is also changing the way businesses license its software. New licensing systems will replace the current volume license keys, which have been widely abused, Hartje said. "Fifty percent of the piracy, we think, uses keys issued to volume licensing customers," she said.

Volume license keys are registration codes for products that Microsoft gives out to large organizations in plain text. One key can be used to activate and run an unlimited number of copies of the product, for example Windows XP or Office XP.

Starting with Vista, Microsoft will offer two different types of keys and offer three different ways to distribute them within an organization. In all cases, some more work will be required on the part of the technology department at a company.

"They will just need to do a little extra planning," Hartje said.

The first type of product key to replace the current system is called "multiple activation key," or MAK. An IT pro at a company can install a key on a machine that will then need to be validated online. Alternatively a proxy can be set up centrally to activate multiple systems at once, according to Microsoft.

The second licensing option is called "key management service," or KMS. This requires the organization to set up a KMS service on the corporate network that will activate client machines. The Vista PCs will silently find the KMS service and activate, according to Microsoft.

It may seem like businesses will have to count all their licenses, but it's really not as bad as it sounds, said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner.

"It has nothing to do with license counting right now, but companies will need to expend time and effort and some money to administer this, in the name of helping Microsoft recoup revenue lost to piracy," he said. "There needs to be more of a benefit (for customers). Linux and Mac communities will try to make hay with this, but this will not be the tipping point."