I've been involved in computer service and IT for sometime now. This has put me in direct touch with Microsoft products virtually every day. Extended contact with unhappy computer users often leads you to Microsoft and even more often to a Windows or Office CD. In all these years I've yet to go more than a week without seeing some form of blatant, unabashed, piracy.
In the service field, outside of hardware problems/upgrades, Microsoft is probably the biggest cause of trips to the computer shop. Very commonly it comes down to Windows rot. Windows has been proven time and time again to have the inability to cleanly delete the remains of programs, including registry entries and various (often incompatible) DLL's. The only fix? Reinstalling.
I can't begin to tell you how often those reinstalls were met with an obviously pirated copy of Windows and/or Office. I can't break down the numbers exactly because I didn't keep track but every customer had an excuse. I can even remember some of the pirated keys commonly used in popular warez releases of Windows.
Piracy in the US & Elsewhere
The Business Software Alliance has recently reported that the US still has a 25% software piracy rate, other countries having astounding figures much higher. (BSA says Vietnam is at 98%, Hong Kong 56%) Obviously there is a very real problem and Microsoft's WPA is much more than just a scheme to steal personal information or control consumers.
Many small businesses I've had contact with treat one OEM copy of Windows like a corporate volume license version. Very often knowing what they were doing was illegal. While working in the service field it wasn't uncommon to see people cutting corners by selling pirated versions of software.
On the consumer side of things, personally I know very few people who own Windows. It's a bit of a joke among most computer geeks that no one buys Windows but even more disturbingly it has spread to numerous requests from friends, family, and co-workers for copies of the latest version of Windows or Office without so much as a suggestion of shame on their part.
The Confusion over WPA
From the first time I heard Microsoft was trying to crack down on piracy using unique keys and hardware ID's I knew that it'd upset practically everyone. Privacy advocates feel Microsoft is simply trying to more tightly control their products and gather precious market research and software pirates everywhere are secretly scared to death that their long term and prolific theft of software might be coming to a quick and painful end.
I'd like to explain why I support Windows Product Activation (WPA) and other similar protection systems and try to clarify the confusion over privacy concerns. I want to touch on the issues commonly associated with WPA and add a quick response.
Windows is too expensive, I have to steal it.
Anyone who feels Windows is too expensive should try to use another OS that is less expensive. Linux, BeOS, and FreeBSD are some very good examples. If you don't want to buy Windows you shouldn't use it and you shouldn't cheapen privacy by using it as an excuse to make piracy easier.
Microsoft just wants my hardware information.
It is becoming extremely clear that the hardware ID sent to Microsoft, as they've stated from the start, includes no information on the specifics of the hardware you use. While there isn't much information out there currently about how these ID's are obtained from your hardware, my theory is they are a collection of PCI vendor ID's, possibly combined with other information obtained from the BIOS. When you register Windows over the phone (I haven't personally tried this method yet) you need to read off a fairly short number so if they're stealing info, they're not getting much.
I won't be able to reinstall every 6 months.
This is the most serious threat of WPA to me when I first heard abut the process. If you were forced to call Microsoft every time you need to reinstall Windows I suspect their toll free number will be racking up an enormous phone bill. The key item to remember is that when doing a reinstall your hardware ID would not change and you will have no problem registering your copy of Windows online with the same key and will not be presented with any extra hassle outside of the WPA process itself. (which is very simple)
I won't be able to upgrade my hardware.
When upgrading your hardware Microsoft is simply keeping a tally on the number of times your key is registered with a new hardware ID. If you plan to do major upgrades scores of times without buying a new copy of Windows you might run into a problem but I honestly can't see that happening in reality. The hardware ID also seems to treat PCI devices and other smaller upgrades (USB) with less importance than your motherboard. Smaller upgrades equal smaller changes in your hardware ID key and therefore result in more leniencies from authentication servers.
Microsoft just wants to collect my personal information.
The WPA process takes place separately from the registration process. They, at this point, are entirely separate. I have not personally used the phone based registration method but I assume it is also separate.
Large organizations will reject WPA due to deployment overhead of activation.
Microsoft in the past has offered versions of Windows specifically for volume licenses, partly due to the deployment problems faced with hundreds of unique product keys. I am sure they will continue to offer an easy way to register products. Either by not requiring it at all or allowing deployment tools that makes the process automatic. If they don't, this will be a very real problem with WPA and will make opposition of it very valid.
It'll be cracked in a week anyway. Pirates will have an easier time installing Windows than honest consumers.
It's entirely possible it will be cracked. Some say it already has been. (See next point) The process is not overly complex and doesn't take much time. If for some reason the key servers are down or the phone line is too busy you have 2 weeks to activate. I'd point to the fact that various other key based systems, including Half Life and Quake 3 have yet to be cracked. It seems entirely possible Microsoft can find a way to make WPA very hard to crack.
It's ALREADY been cracked
I want to clear up a factual inaccuracy that many major news sites have failed to understand. The current "crack" floating around the internet is simply replacing new versions of the file that includes the product activation code (Winlogon.exe) with a version from an older build that didn't include product activation yet. It's safe to assume by the time of final release Microsoft will ensure that older builds of Winlogon.exe do not work with the final release. This type of "crack" involves no programming what-so-ever and no compromises to the WPA process. The key protection systems found in Half Life and Quake 3 have yet to be cracked and valid keys are very uncommon. Microsoft should be able to create a similar system.
If consumers can't steal minor upgrades they might not buy them.
Microsoft, in my opinion, is backing into a corner in this respect. Many consumers who buy retail upgrades have simply stopped being interested with minor visual upgrades or new collections of updated free software (Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, DirectX primarily) Yet it seems they always have the latest copy of Microsoft software, if you acquire my drift.
Consumers who are forced into the choice of paying $90 for Windows SE ME Super Duper Edition or simply not using it will often settle on not using it. Microsoft will largely sell their new products to the OEM market or be forced to produce new versions of Windows that consumers are interested in buying separately unless they want their growth tied directly to new PC sales. The yearly upgrade mentality that Microsoft is so fond of will become less and less interesting to the consumer who's been tricked into thinking a 2 year old OS or office package can't be expected to work properly.
Why am I writing a pro-Microsoft article? Why do I care if Microsoft makes more money?
It's not, I don't. I simply feel that people who advocate freedom of speech, freedom of distribution in the form of open source licenses such as the GPL or the BSD license should also respect other laws and other license agreements. Legal procedures are how you disagree with license agreements, not a FTP site full of stolen products.
I also know that the simplicity of pirating software has caused me to steal a wealth of software over the years. It's obviously hypocritical of me to blame anyone for doing so as well but that's a major reason I support WPA. It's just too tempting and easy to pirate software yet I've found software I cannot come by any other way I will gladly buy. Maybe others have more self control than me but I suspect I am not alone, by a long shot.
It's also clear that the privacy issues people associate with WPA are simply non-existent. Using privacy for more sinister goals weakens valid arguments people might have in other cases.
Questions to the community:
Is software piracy as widespread as I've observed in your experience?
Now that it's clear WPA doesn't send information about hardware or personal information are you less opposed to it?
How will the impact of potentially non-free software (in price and freedom) impact the adoption of free or inexpensive operating systems and software?
What are the remaining downsides to WPA now that privacy and re-authentication are not an issue?
Are the staggering piracy figures widely reported by the media true?
WindowsXP, You & Piracy
Windows Product Activation: an early look
WinXP activation: what happens under the covers?
Microsoft Product Activation Q&A
Latest Worldwide Software Piracy Figures
***NOTE***, all this information is based on BETA software and may very well change drastically before the final release of mentioned products.
All of the factual aspects of this article come from either the related links or my own personal experience with Windows XP Beta 2. Judge the sources on your own.