Seven ways to fix WGA

A few ideas on how Microsoft can make its copy protection more tolerable

Microsoft's Alex Kochis has blogged an explanation of the glitch behind last weekend's Windows Genuine Advantage screwup that left users being told their copies of Windows were pirated, and Vista users having features like Aero and ReadyBoost disabled. In short, buggy preproduction code accidentally got rolled out to the production servers that verify whether a copy of Windows is legit or not. Oops!

Kochis's post is pretty detailed, humble, and up-front. But I hope it's only the start of Microsoft's response to the weekend mess. If a copy protection scheme can leave thousands of paying customers with their copies of Windows disabling functionality and accusing them of using pirated copies of the OS, it's simply too fragile to trust. Even if this particular problem never crops up again. (And this recent unpleasantness is far from the first time that WGA has caused trouble.)

One way to ensure that WGA would never again waste the time of a Microsoft customer would be to do away with it. I don't believe that's an unthinkable option given that most of the world's software developers seem to fare well without making their customers jump though WGA-like hoops. (And hey, Bill Gates managed to become the world's richest man back when WGA didn't exist.) Intuit's abandonment of product activation in 2003 provides an admirable precedent. I concede that it's very unlikely that Microsoft will cave on WGA, though--at least not at this point.

As I've said before, I have no basic issue with Microsoft taking steps to thwart pirates, as long as it doesn't punish paying customers in multiple ways...which is what WGA has a track record of doing. So here are a few ideas on how it can make its copy protection more tolerable:

1. Reset it, don't tweak it. I don't think minor adjustments to WGA's functionality will resolve the basic issues it has. If we're going to have WGA at all, we need an anti-piracy technology based on a fundamentally different, less intrusive approach.

2. Make it simple. Among the problems with WGA is that it's so complicated. (Reading this document about "Reduced Functionality Mode," which is only one aspect of the scheme, makes my head spin.) What WGA does, and how it does it, should be straightforward and predictable--no nasty surprises.

3. Make it less punitive. Microsoft's responses to complaints over the last few days have included somewhat defensive comments about how the WGA glitch didn't actually disable anyone's copy of Windows. But it did shut off features that Microsoft has touted as major reasons to give it hundreds of dollars for Windows Vista based on its inability to accurately tell a real copy of Windows from a fake. Unless Microsoft can assure that paying customers will never, ever be penalized by WGA, it needs to make the damage that WGA does far less sweeping. How about a week-long grace period before it does anything at all?

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4. Make it less accusatory. Kochis's post today says that the glitch resulted in customers being told their copies of Windows weren't genuine. I've seen that message myself, and I'm pretty sure in that case that the copy of Windows was real--it was one that Microsoft had sent me. "We kind of think there's a chance that your copy of Windows might be fake, but there's really no way to know for sure--our apologies if we're wrong" would be a message more in line with WGA's current capabilities.

5. Stop the constant need for revalidation. The way that Microsoft makes you revalidate your copy of Windows as genuine most every time you download from its site may help foil pirates. But its a shabby way to treat paying customers, and it's not particularly clear why hundreds of millions of people whose copies of the OS are unquestionably legit need to be put through the rigmarole. (Microsoft pitches WGA as a customer benefit given that it'll tell you if someone has sold you a counterfeit copy of Windows; if you bought your PC from HP, Dell, Gateway, Sony, Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, or any of dozens of other companies, there's no reason on earth why you would want to be put through ongoing anti-piracy checks on a copy of the OS which Microsoft surely got paid for.)

6. Make the marketing less patronizing. No more happy people endorsing WGA, please. No more selling of it as a customer benefit. Just explain that it's an inconvenience that Microsoft puts customers through in order to make life difficult for software pirates.

7. Change the name. Normally, I'd be the last one to suggest that Microsoft change the name of something. But there's nothing advantageous about Windows Genuine Advantage, and it's hard to take it very seriously as long as its very name insults your intelligence. How about calling it Windows Anti-Piracy Validation?

For years, Microsoft's monopolistic position in operating systems has allowed it to treat its customers like they couldn't take their business elsewhere. I believe we're at the beginning of an era in which the company will have to work much harder to keep our business. Rethinking WGA from the ground up would be a good start...