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8/27/2007
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Microsoft Piracy Check Snafu Mislabels Authentic Windows Copies

Without a fix, users would have had to turn off anything that would ping Microsoft's WGA servers for validation, including updates and patches, until the issue got resolved.

Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage servers, which validate copies of Windows XP and Vista as authentic, encountered problems late Friday or early Saturday, sending Windows users into a frenzy.

Users suddenly lit up Microsoft support forums with complaints that their once-validated copies of Microsoft Windows were suddenly suspected to be counterfeit.

Microsoft initially responded to complaints by posting a note in its online WGA forum informing readers that WGA "might be down for a few days" and that users should try back again on Tuesday, four days after complaints began filtering in. Validation was working fine again by later Saturday, and Microsoft's Windows Vista Team Blog noted that "very few customers were affected," but there was no shortage of complaints on the company's WGA support forum site.

Without a fix, users would have had to turn off anything that would ping those servers for validation, including updates and patches, until the issue got resolved or risk having their software wrongly labeled as not genuine. In Windows XP, a failed validation doesn't have much effect. However, in Windows Vista, it will disable features like Vista's Aero user interface, its ReadyBoost performance tool, and DirectX support a few days after a failed validation.

As of Monday, there is still no explanation for what went wrong over the weekend, though Microsoft promised in a support forum post to get to the bottom of the problem. "We're still investigating the root cause of this," WGA product manager Phil Liu wrote in the WGA forum. "Will get updates out as soon as we can." A Microsoft spokesperson also said more information will be posted at the WGA blog as it becomes available.

In a slew of comments on Microsoft forums, users have alternatively used the incident as an opportunity to attack Microsoft or applaud the company's quick response, with the scale heavily in the favor of the negative. Some sniped at online validation or even Microsoft in general. "Why don't we go back to old ways of buying the software, installing it and voila get the work done quickly," commenter John Hacker wrote in one of the Microsoft forum posts on the outage. "Why do we need to go online to validate and activate products?"

Others were thankful that the problem didn't continue until Tuesday, as Microsoft had originally warned. "Thank you so much for resolving this issue so quickly," user Woody79_00, who identifies himself as Ron, wrote in the forum. "Thank you for your such swift work to get this issue resolved, especially on a weekend."

A few complained, even with Microsoft's help, of difficulty returning their copies of Windows to the state they were in before they failed validation. One user, pianomangs, wrote that despite a fix posted by Microsoft, Windows error codes were still showing up declaring that Windows could no longer search for new updates. "I certainly do not want Microsoft to believe that they have fixed this problem already," pianomangs wrote. "I don't want them to believe that until I am fully functional, again."

This isn't the first time the Windows Genuine Advantage server has gone down. Two times in October and November of last year, the WGA service was hit by a temporary outage, drawing similar complaints from Windows users and forcing Microsoft to create a knowledge base article showing volume license holders how to revert the error.

Microsoft has been running WGA checks since 2005 for updates and patches, and there's never been a lack of complaints about the program. The biggest complaint, that WGA is akin to spyware in that it reports back to Microsoft on a regular basis, forced Microsoft to decrease the number of times the software phones home to Microsoft. Others have complained of false positives that have incorrectly labeled genuine Windows copies as not genuine.

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