Microsoft may make it mandatory for Windows users to prove they have a genuine copy of Windows or Office in order to get updates from Automatic Update or Windows Update.
Last fall, the Redmond, Wash. software giant extended its year-old Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) anti-piracy online program that notifies Windows customers if they are using counterfeit or illegal copies of Windows.
A pilot of the notification service – called Genuine Software Initiative (GSI) -- was initially launched in November in Norway and Sweden and then later in five additional countries.
This week, Microsoft expanded the WGA notifications pilot to a "random subset" of English speaking customers in the U.S., U.K., Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
Microsoft said the notification service for Windows Genuine Advantage in pilot is voluntary but acknowledged that it may become mandatory later this year.
"The WGA Notifications pilot is opt-in, so all participants are given a choice about whether or not they wish to participate. Users can choose to suppress the notification," according to a statement issued by Microsoft to CRN Thursday. " While the pilot is presently opt-in, as it expands later in the year, AU and WU customers may be required to participate."
Launched in July 2005 WGA is an online validation tool that enables customers to determine whether they have a genuine, legal copy of Windows on their PCs. This week, that program was expanded to include Office, called Office Genuine Advantage (OGA).
The notification service is currently in pilot testing for Windows Genuine Advantage, Microsoft said.
As part of the notification service, customers who opt-in to the pilot and are found to be running non-genuine versions of Windows will get a message during log-on that they are running non genuine Windows and will be directed to the WGA web site for details or a recommendation, Microsoft said.
Microsoft said if the customer chooses not to obtain a legal copy of Windows at that time, they "will receive reminders" until they are running genuine Windows,
Microsoft on Thursday said it filed lawsuits against eDirectSoftware of Montana and two Chicago-area resellers -- Nathan Ballog and Easy Computers-- for allegedly distributing illegal copies of Windows.
In the case against Nathan Ballog, for example, Microsoft said it received electronic evidence of alleged wrongdoing via its Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) online program.
Last September, Microsoft filed eight lawsuits against computer companies in Arizona, New York, Minnesota, California and Illinois.
In one of the cases, against MicroCity4less.com, of Torrance, Calif, Microsoft relied in part on evidence submitted by consumers through the WGA program.
The notification service is currently in pilot testing for Windows only.
While privacy advocates may take issue with making it mandatory to get updates, many resellers and system builders – whose business is undermined by unscrupulous resellers who load illegal copies of Windows on PCs, Microsoft says – have endorsed WGA.
At least one Microsoft solution provider and system builder, however, said the notification service may go too far if it harasses customers.
"Microsoft already has a major issue with customer respect and trust. Often times an end user isn't aware of the main components of their system, let alone their authenticity," said Mike Healey, CEO of TenCorp, Needham, Mass. which was recently acquired by Greenpages. "I'm not defending real crooks, but notifications to an end user are simply too confusing. Let's hope the notification gives them an 800 number with a tech support person that will help them resolve their question - rather than leave the customer frustrated."
Microsoft is attacking the piracy problem on both technical and legal fronts.
In the cases filed Thursday against eDirect Software, of Billings, Montana, and Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada, in the District of Montana, Microsoft alleges violations of copyright and trademark law, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and Anti-Counterfeiting Amendments Act.
Microsoft claims that eDirect Software – "a well known Internet company in the channel" has repeatedly distributed counterfeit software, tampered with software and provided illegal product keys with unlicensed software not authorized for resale.
In the other two cases, Microsoft alleged counterfeit and hard disk loading violations against the two Chicago area resellers based on complaints called into its anti-piracy hotline and Microsoft's own test purchase program to net violators.
One observer said Microsoft has rolled out the WGA program slowly to ensure it could handle the number of validations and flag false positives and claims it benefits resellers as well as customers.
'Microsoft has offered incentives to people who have been defrauded to get a genuine copy [of Windows]," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a newsletter in Kirkland, Wash.
"There are definite risks to customers running non-genuine Windows, if files were altered or substituted to get around activation or to otherwise create the pirated version, then the customer is at risk for damaged data or security vulnerabilities," Cherry added. "I don't think Microsoft has to supply security patches to customers who cannot validate that their copy is genuine."