Users Cannot Digest Microsoft's Anti-Piracy Play

SAN MATEO (05/01/2000) - Think Microsoft Corp. has been scared by the antitrust case? Apparently not scared enough to refrain from ramming a new "medialess" OS policy down the throats of computer manufacturers and their customers.

As an anti-piracy measure, Microsoft has quietly implemented a policy through which OEM hardware manufacturers who license Windows directly from Microsoft no longer ship a full backup CD of the OS with their systems. Instead, users receive one of two options for disaster recovery: a "recovery CD" that is locked into the type of system it's going to run on or a hard-drive-based approach where a "recovery image" of the OS can be loaded on a separate partition. Both approaches appear to have some serious shortcomings, not the least of which is that PC buyers might not realize what they're getting until it's too late.

Microsoft has made no formal announcement about this, and not surprisingly, the PC vendors aren't saying anything more than they have to about it. Readers who have been complaining to the Gripe Line as they encounter this policy in discussions with their PC vendors are being told different things, and that's also not surprising. Disaster-recovery solutions can vary greatly from vendor to vendor, and getting clear answers about how they work isn't easy.

"I asked my OEM about what's going to happen if for some reason the pre-installed system files are removed or deleted," wrote one reader. "How is having a 'recovery CD' going to help me when I'm asked to insert my Windows 2000 CD to copy those files? After conferring with Microsoft again, my OEM could only tell me that my concerns were very real ones, but Microsoft just says they know we're not going to like this but this is how it's going to be."

"We have been told that this new policy is designed to reduce piracy," wrote another reader, a reseller who was told by his OEM that resellers could not be entrusted with a Windows CD so they could help customers in case of disaster.

"But it seems to me to be better designed to increase Microsoft's profit; they still collect all of the fees but no longer have to bother with duplicating, packing, and shipping the software. This sounds like a bad deal for the consumer. Isn't this the kind of thing that got Microsoft in trouble with the law in the first place?"

So there's a lot of confusion out there. After several weeks of talking to Microsoft's designated representatives about this, I wish I could say I'm going to make it all clear. I'll do my best, but the only thing that is certain here is that Microsoft is leaving it up to its OEMs to tell their customers about this. And because different OEMs are going to have recovery mechanisms, your results may vary: Kids, don't do this at home, etc.

According to Microsoft representatives, as of April 1 the company changed its OEM media policies for all versions of Windows except for the Server Edition of Windows 2000, for which one still gets a regular backup CD. For all other versions of Windows, PC manufacturers have their choice of the recovery CD or hard-drive-based recovery-image solutions, and some may offer customers different options (presumably at different prices). How recovery CDs are implemented is up to the OEM as long as it meets Microsoft's guidelines for assuring the media can only be used on the type of system with which it originally shipped. These policies are limited to those PC manufacturers that have direct license agreements with Microsoft, so generic OS backup CDs will still be in the distribution channel.

"Essentially, Microsoft is providing the flexibility for OEMs to offer the recovery solution that will be best for their business and best for their customers," said a Microsoft representative. "This change is based on feedback from end-user customers and PC manufacturers, as well as to address piracy concerns."

Microsoft also says that some OEMs have been using recovery CDs without major complaints for several years as a way to deliver Windows. But it remains to be seen how well the different OEM recovery implementations will work and what types of problems they might cause users. How many users will have to choose between sending their system in for OS repair or losing their data? How easy will it be for companies with a variety of PCs to track which systems require which CDs? And will whatever dent this makes in Windows piracy be worth the trouble?

One problem I am certain we'll see is that many PC buyers will be caught by surprise. With Microsoft leaving explanations up to the OEMs, many customers aren't going to know what they're getting until they open the box containing their PC. And inevitably, some won't realize they don't have a backup CD of their OS until disaster strikes.

Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at gripe@infoworld.com.

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