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7/14/2006
02:38 PM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
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Opinion: Genuine Advantage To Whom?

OK, Microsoft, be tough on piracy. But that doesn't give you a right to be disrespectful of your customers.

I still haven't decided whether to let Windows Automatic Update install Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage tool on my PCs. Every time I dismiss the nag screen I think of my bank.

Several years ago, my bank mailed me an offer of a new service. For only $4 a month it would stop mailing my cancelled checks back to me. (This was back in the days before Internet bill-paying when I was writing 30 or more checks a month.) Naturally, it made me very angry.

It wasn't that I so desperately wanted my cancelled checks. What made me mad was that according to some of my friends in the business the banks could save big money if they didn't have to handle, aggregate, and mail out cancelled checks -- not just postage, but billions of dollars in processing costs. I wasn't mad at the bank for trying to save some money. In fact if it had asked nicely and offered to share some of its savings with me I would probably have agreed. I was furious that it had insulted my intelligence. And for the privilege of helping the bank save money by not returning my cancelled checks I was supposed to pay them $4 every month? Do I look like I just fell off a turnip truck?

And that's the way I feel about Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage. I don't have an argument with Microsoft's desire to curb rampant piracy of its software, if it exists. But its right to get paid for its products does not give it a right to be disrespectful of its customers.

It's an insult to my intelligence for Microsoft to claim that WGA offers me any advantage whatsoever. I've been around long enough to know that monitoring software like this is going to be a problem for me sooner or later. Inevitably Microsoft will tighten up the rules click by click. First I won't be able to download security fixes unless I install WGA (which is really against Microsoft's best interests, if you ask me, but that's a different issue). Then the nag screens will become more frequent. And some bright morning WGA will decide that my copy of Windows is illegitimate (even though it's not) and it must be disabled, and my PC will lock up. And the only thing I'll be able to do is accept Microsoft's gracious offer to install a legitimate copy of Windows, enter my credit card number to pay the ransom, clear WGA's lock, and get my data back.

The first version of WGA was criticized for phoning home, connecting across the Internet to Microsoft servers to transfer who knows what data every day. Microsoft quickly backed off that to an every-two-weeks schedule. In fairness, WGA is hardly the only software that phones home. Apparently the latest version of Mac OS X does something similar. And Symantec products, and Adobe Reader and all those other apps that want to check for updates every time I load them.

But with them there is some advantage for me -- one time in a thousand there might actually be an update. With Windows Genuine Advantage it's more like a shakedown on a prison cellblock. Have you stepped out of line? Not this time? Well, Microsoft is watching you, so don't get any ideas, see?

That is what makes me mad about WGA. Microsoft is presuming me guilty, and never getting around to admitting I'm innocent. WGA lumps me in with the pirates and leaves me there. If I was running a valid copy of Windows two weeks ago, or two years ago, how likely is it that I've switched to a pirated copy since?

I don't quite agree with the lawsuits that say WGA is spyware, but it does carry the same implications of loss of control. This is my PC, but if I install WGA I can't uninstall it? Does that sound right to you?

I know, sooner or later I'll install WGA. I'll have to. Microsoft will make it too difficult not to. It's not a big thing, really. "The customer is always wrong" seems to be the prevailing wisdom these days. But it's one more chip out of an increasingly battered relationship.

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