Scan and validation method could become a model for the whole industry
When a software product is expanding into new areas, piracy is not a major worry. Indeed, it can have long-term benefits if it allows more people to try the program and become users.
Today, however, practically everyone who can use Microsoft Windows already knows about it and probably uses it. But they may not have paid for it, so piracy is Microsoft's biggest single problem.
Microsoft has already tried various methods to get more people to pay up. One example is Windows Activation, where users have to register their copy of XP or it stops working. Another is the development of cut-down single-language versions of XP for Asian countries, where piracy is rampant.
According to Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer, however little users pay for these versions, it is far more than they would have paid before, which was nothing.
Fortunately for Microsoft, virus writers and other scumware programmers are helping to provide a solution. Windows is not something you can install and forget about. It needs updating at least monthly with patches for the latest malware exploits. Pirates can hardly hide if they have to keep visiting Microsoft's website.
Microsoft has therefore developed a small ActiveX control that scans PCs, with their user's permission, and decides if they are using a pirate copy of Windows. Microsoft is testing this utility in 22 languages, and from 7 February, users of the Czech, Norwegian, and Simplified Chinese versions of Windows will have to validate their copy before downloading software and security patches from the Windows update site.
You can expect the Windows Genuine Advantage programme to become mandatory in all geographies in 2005. You can also expect other software houses to adopt the same approach once Microsoft has absorbed the resulting flak.
But as well as sticks, there are carrots. If users have a valid copy of Windows, they will be able to download free programs such as Microsoft's Windows Movie Maker 2.1 and Photo Story 3. They will also be offered discounts on other software, from MSN Games (for home users) to hosted Windows Sharepoint Services (for business users).
Accidental pirates - who have paid but have been cheated by their PC manufacturer or other supplier - will be offered XP for a low price.
Non-payers will not, however, be thrown to the malware wolves. They will be able to get any security patches Microsoft deems necessary, but only if they let Microsoft install them, via Auto-update.
I think you can now see which way the wind is blowing, and I bet you are not going to like it.
Jack Schofield is computer editor of The Guardian
This was first published in February 2005