Microsoft Axes Vista Reduced Functionality Mode


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In a move that could help lower the blood pressure of a large portion of its channel partner community, Microsoft on Tuesday said it plans to remove a controversial anti-piracy measure from Windows Vista.

With the release of Vista service pack 1, currently slated for Q1 of 2008, Microsoft will no longer force copies of Vista that fail Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy checks to enter a reduced functionality mode in which certain features are disabled.

Instead, users whose copies of Vista are flagged will receive recurring pop-up alerts notifying them of the situation along with information on how to get legal, said Alex Kochis, senior product manager in the Windows Genuine Advantage group.

WGA is designed to combat piracy by installing software on users' PCs that periodically checks to see if their version of Windows is authentic before allowing them to download updates.

WGA has been a source of much frustration for users since it was launched in 2005, with several incidents in which genuine users have been mistakenly identified as pirates.

However, Kochis says "there really isn't any connection" between the issues with WGA that have occurred recently and Microsoft's decision to discontinue reduced functionality mode. "The overall strategy of the [anti-piracy] program remains same: Genuine products will work better than non-genuine ones," said Kochis.

The success of Microsoft's anti-piracy efforts were seen in Microsoft's recent quarterly results, and Kochis says that the trend toward software license sales exceeding the market growth of PCs "is a sign of progress".

In Vista SP1, Microsoft will also natively disable two common exploits that target the product activation mechanisms for Vista and XP. One exploit targets the Windows OEM BIOS activation scheme, also know as OA, which allows PC makers and system builders to pre-activate Windows for their customers via a system-lock pre-installation.

In April, Microsoft said two types of OA hacks had begun circulating in the wild, one of which involves editing the BIOS on the motherboard, and the other which targets Windows Vista and uses a software-based approach to trick the operating system into functioning as if it's running on OA-enabled hardware.

Vista SP1 will also block the so-called grace timer exploit, which modifies the grace period for registering Vista by resetting the target time to 2099, according to Kochis.

Noting that Vista's tougher anti-piracy features make it harder for hackers to tamper with than XP, Kochis said hackers are now trying to modify the Windows code itself, as opposed to the simpler approach of developing activation workarounds. As a result, the piracy rate for Vista is "less than half" that of XP right now, says Kochis.

Microsoft's tactical response to disabling exploits today will include the ability to discover new hacks and respond to them as they happen, said Kochis.

"We're effectively writing signatures that detect exploits and enable the OS to see it and disable it. In most cases, that means reverting to the originally intended behavior," he said.

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