posted by Thom Holwerda on Sun 7th Sep 2008 20:23 UTC
IconProbably one of the most hated parts of Windows are its anti-piracy measures - product activation and Windows Genuine Advantage. While most people acknowledge Microsoft's right to implement these measures, many have also been bitten by the measures' shortcomings, such as server outages or false positives. Microsoft blogger Ed Bott has been monitoring WGA since its inception, and in 2006 and 2007 he didn't give a passing grade to WGA ("a big fat F"). This year, the situation has improved somewhat, earning Microsoft a passing grade - barely.

Bott's process of monitoring WGA problems is by following the WGA support forums over at Microsoft for a period of time, keeping track of all the threads started. Of the 64 support requests related to WGA messages on Windows XP, 16 turned out to be confirmed cases of piracy, while 9 others were cases where malware had modified the system, triggering WGA. The remaining 39 cases were a mix of different cases, such as people using an Acer restore disk on Asus systems, but none of them turned out to be true false positives.

When it comes to Windows Vista, the story is a lot more complex, since the Software Protection Platform in Windows Vista is a lot more complex than the relatively simple WGA process in Windows XP. Of the 69 relevant started threads in the WGA support forum for Windows Vista, 10 were cases of counterfeit software, 2 were malware cases, and 17 were mixed cases, none of which were false positives. The remainder 40 cases could be split in two different root causes, one related to the Licensing Service being shutdown, and the other one with Vista erroneously reporting its core components had been tampered with.

Those two categories collectively involve 57% of the problems reported by Vista users on Microsoft's support forums. Some are false positives. Others might be caused by Microsoft updates that failed to install properly. Still others might be caused by undetected malware or badly written programs that are interfering with system services and tampering with system files. It's clear that Microsoft has some work to do to identify the root causes of those two failure types and prevent them from occurring.

Overall, Bott concludes, Microsoft has made major strides in improving the WGA system, with all but nearly eliminating WGA problems on Windows XP. However, Vista still poses problems, and as such, Bott makes a set of suggestions for Windows 7:

  1. Simplify Windows licensing and activation
  2. Provide a plain-English license display that anyone can understand
  3. Provide a deactivation option for retail copies of Windows (for transferring licenses)
  4. Build a simple, usable, web-based front-end for troubleshooting WGA and validation errors
  5. Make the Complete PC Backup utility a part of every Vista edition.

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