Microsoft Smokes Out Office Pirates

Following up on its Windows anti-piracy efforts, Microsoft is piloting a program to sniff out counterfeit copies of Office, Microsoft's second-biggest moneymaker.

Microsoft shifted the focus of its anti-piracy technology from Windows-only this week and began piloting a program that sniffs out counterfeit copies of Office, the application suite that is, after Windows client software, the company's second-biggest money maker.

Dubbed Office Genuine Advantage (OGA), the pilot will be pointed at users running versions localized in Brazilian Portuguese, Czech, Greek, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Russian, and Spanish, said Microsoft Monday when it announced OGA as it also expanded the already-existing Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) anti-piracy program.

Initially, OGA will be optional, just as was Windows Genuine Advantage when it launched in July 2005. Users will be asked if they want to "validate" their copy of Office when they download add-ons, templates, and some updates (although not security updates).

This is the same first step made by Microsoft when it debuted WGA. Later, Microsoft required users to validate Windows to download anything other than security updates. This week, it debuted a tool that automatically downloads to U.S. users' PCs to check that they're running a real copy of the operating system.

"This was inevitable," said Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based research firm Directions on Microsoft. "They've been moving into WGA very slowly and cautiously, but once they had some confirmation that the [validation] technology would work and be acceptable to a reasonable portion of users, they were likely to extend it to other software."

OGA relies on an ActiveX control, which checks for "several known counterfeiting methods," said a Microsoft spokesperson. DeGroot said that OGA was probably looking for known stolen volume licensing keys, the most common way Office is pirated. "Those keys are supposed to be kept secret, on a need-to-know basis, in a corporation," said DeGroot. "But they still get out. When Microsoft learns about in-the-wild keys, it adds them to a list. That's what the OGA tool is looking for."

There are some differences between OGA and WGA, however, even though announcements of both were packaged into one release late Monday.

WGA, for example, offers those running fake Windows either a free or heavily-discounted copy of Windows XP. It's unclear whether Microsoft will follow suit with Office.

"No comment," the Microsoft spokesperson said when asked that question in an e-mail from TechWeb.

"I see the two programs as very different," said Joe Wilcox, an analyst with JupiterResearch. "Most people will have to buy [a legit copy of] Office at full price."

And the backlash might be severe. "There's a different emotional attachment to Office than to Windows," said Wilcox. "The operating system is like the road, but Office is the car you drive. People have emotional attachments to their cars."

If nothing else, said Wilcox, the fact that Office costs more than Windows might rankle users who are told their copy of the suite is bogus, but thought they were getting a legitimate one when they bought their computer.

DeGroot of Directions on Microsoft doesn't agree with Wilcox on some points. "I think Microsoft will make some kind of good faith offer to Office users. Their goal isn't to make end users pay the price of piracy." DeGroot theorized that Microsoft might require users to pay the difference between what they laid out for the supposedly-legit Office and the real deal's cost; how that would be calculated or verified, however, is unknown.

For its part Microsoft would only say that it was in for the long haul.

"We are absolutely committed to having Microsoft Office participate in the advantages of Microsoft’s overarching Genuine Software Initiative (GSI) from a long-term, broad perspective as part of upcoming releases," said the company's spokesperson.

But as for those future plans, "we have nothing further to discuss at this time."

Wilcox has ideas of what Microsoft's up to. "There's another issue to take into consideration with Office: piracy is not necessarily a bad thing for Microsoft."

He explained what he meant. "In emerging markets, piracy is also about gaining market share. If they weren't using a pirated copy of Office, they would be using something else, maybe OpenOffice or StarOffice.

"Converting a pirated customers is cheaper than switching them from someone else."

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