How to alienate and lose customers

Microsoft lures unsuspecting customers into installing WGA

Which Microsoft anti-piracy initiative has customers in New Zealand frothing at the mouth?

It’s the anti-piracy Windows Genuine Advantage program. WGA’s been with us for about a year — Microsoft instituted it about a year ago, but in May changed WGA to include “Notifications”. That sounds innocent enough, but means WGA checks with a Microsoft server on a regular basis and then pops up alerts if it thinks you’re running non-legit copies of Windows.

Does WGA provide anything useful to Microsoft’s customers? In language that would’ve brought a smile to George Orwell’s face, Microsoft lures unsuspecting customers into installing WGA with promises such as “your system will deliver the features, options, and performance you need to maximise your productivity and enjoyment”. The general idea is that should your copy of Windows be counterfeit, WGA will spot it and help you get a legit version instead. Fair enough, isn’t it?

The truth behind the siren-song is quite different. WGA has been running up connectivity bills by “phoning home” at every boot-up and falsely accused large corporate customers of running pirated copies of Windows; not content with that, it’s been said to cause system stability and incompatibility issues and has even had a worm (Cuebot) written to take advantage (no pun intended) of it.

Stung by criticism from genuine customers, Microsoft now publishes a Knowledge Base article that shows customers how to ditch the WGA. Contrite Redmond chief privacy strategist Peter Cullen admits that Microsoft commiteed a clanger with the ovezealous WGA “notifications” and customer anger has boiled over and gone legal: a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Microsoft in Seattle, which alleges the software is illegal spyware (see page 3).

Despite all this, you see WGA listed as a “high-priority update” when you fire up Windows Update. That is, if you select the “custom” option instead of the “express” one that doesn’t show you what is being downloaded and installed.

Microsoft clearly thinks the WGA is fundamentally sound, only poorly implemented. We are already hearing that the WGA Notifications programme may be extended and that only those customers deemed to have legitimate software will have access to operating system and Microsoft antispyware and antivirus updates.

It’s quite easy to see where Microsoft is going with the WGA. It’s a dry-run to streamline Microsoft’s software distribution model.

WGA needs to have regular monitoring built in to ensure that the software is only used according to the terms of the EULA that nobody reads.

The flipside is that Microsoft is prepared to take collateral damage. That is, shutting out customers with genuine software who are inadvertently being shut out of the programs that they’ve paid for. This scenario also means organisations using Microsoft specific storage encryption could be shut out of their data.

You need to make your voice heard about WGA to Microsoft now, or risk being at a Genuine Disadvantage later.

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