As part of its efforts to combat software piracy, Microsoft is testing a new feature on its Download Center website that can lock out pirated copies of Windows.
During the test period, users of Download Center can opt to have the Windows software installed on their PCs validated as genuine. If the operating system is a legitimate copy, users will get access to all Microsoft downloads. If not, they will be shown information on software piracy before they can download the software they selected.
The Download Center offers many Microsoft downloads, including MSN Messenger, Windows Media Player and security updates. However, it is not the same as Windows Update or Automatic Updates, the website and service commonly used to get security fixes and updates from Microsoft.
Microsoft is testing the Windows piracy check to find out how it can curtail software piracy by providing better service to users of legal, licensed copies of the operating system, said David Lazar, a director in Microsoft's Windows Client group
"This is part of our overall antipiracy campaign and our goal is to build customer awareness and preference for genuine Windows," he said. "Certainly we would want to provide greater access and more ongoing value for genuine users and restrict access for those who are found to be using nongenuine copies of Windows."
Microsoft has called the programme Windows Genuine Advantage.
It hopes about 22,000 users will participate to test the checking mechanism, which includes an ActiveX control for the client and the Windows Product Activation service on the back-end, Lazar said. Download Center has up to 30 million unique users each month, he added.
This is not the first time that Microsoft is checking if copies of Windows are legitimate. Windows Update already checks for certain volume licence keys that are known to be used illegally to activate copies of Windows.
Microsoft has not yet decided if it will roll out checks across its download sites and services once it ends the Download Center test, according to Lazar.
"We are really looking to see what customer reception is and then we make a determination as to what the next step will be," he said. The Windows check on Microsoft's Download Center is anonymous, he said.
Software piracy is a major issue for Microsoft. In the US alone almost a quarter of all Windows users run an illegal copy. However, one problem the software maker faces is that many users do not know that their copy of Windows is illegal.
"We know that 23% of US users are using non-genuine software. A good percentage of those are people who thought they were purchasing genuine Windows and were in fact cheated," Lazar said. "We want to help those people by giving them information on how this happens and have recommendations on how to get assistance."
Microsoft has a multipronged attack on software piracy. The company is selling cheaper versions of Windows in certain Asian countries where software piracy is widespread and is also working closely with law enforcement to stop those who manufacture or sell illegal copies of its products.
US law enforcement officials announced that a two-year investigation resulted in one of the largest seizures of fake software in the US and charges against 11 individuals. Federal agents seized $87m (£49m) worth of illegal software, mostly Microsoft products.
Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service