Gartner: Microsoft Should Pay For Vista's Anti-Piracy Hassles

Last week, Microsoft announced new anti-piracy plans for Windows Vista, Windows Server "Longhorn," and other upcoming products. The new technologies, which Microsoft collected under an umbrella dubbed "Software Protection Platform," will require volume license customers to validate the new operating system and activate copies for the first time. Previously, consumers and small businesses that bought Windows singly or in small numbers were the only customers forced to activate Windows and verify that it was genuine.

The new burden, said Gartner analyst Michael Silver, is not enough to make companies reject Vista, but it "adds more management and makes things hairier," he said.

"It's not a significant amount of work" to manage the new process -- which requires that customers to activate and validate Vista -- "but it's enough of a pain that people will resent it."

The process, which Microsoft calls "Volume License Activation," can be carried out with one of two techniques. One, called "Multiple Activation Key" (MAK), is similar to retail product activation, and requires that companies' PCs are always connected to the network. PCs activated and validated via MAK connect to a Microsoft server. The other technology, called Key Management Service (KMS), uses an internally hosted service, said Silver, and is the best choice for systems like laptops which are often outside the network perimeter.

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MAK requires a PC be activated only once, while KMS demands that a system activate once every 180 days.

"MAK is easier to manage because it gets the enterprise out of the business of management," said Silver. "But they still have to work out how many licenses to put in the [activation] hopper. They have to keep enough there to activate all the machines that may connect with Microsoft's server.

"But KMS is better for people worried about Microsoft maybe tying the activation to licenses [purchased], or who are in a really secure environment with no access to the outside world," Silver said. Microsoft has denied that it will match the number of activations against the number of licenses a customer has purchased. But Silver said that tune might change later. "It could be somewhere down the road."

The bottom line, of course, is that Microsoft's making customers do more to bolster not their own revenues, but Microsoft's. And the developer isn't offering enough in compensation.

"One benefit with KMS is that every time a PC activates, Microsoft checks the Windows executables to see if they've been tampered with," said Silver. "But there's no reason why they couldn't offer that as part of Software Agreement, or as a standalone [service]," he said. "This isn't sufficient to offset the labor and hardware that will be needed. While Microsoft works to recoup pirated revenue, customers may wonder what's in it for them. "What's interesting is the visceral reaction people start to have when they hear about this, and think about how much work they have to do," said Silver. To reduce the backlash, Microsoft should have offered up more carrots.

In lieu of that, said Silver, enterprise customers should lobby Microsoft for additional perks to help defray the cost of administering the new activation and validation program.

"Microsoft could produce some sort of enterprise KMS appliance," Silver said.

Neither Silver nor another analyst, Michael Cherry of Redmond, Wash.-based Directions On Microsoft, however, believe that Volume License Activation, burden and all, will have much of an impact on Vista deployment.

"It may slow it down, but it won't be a bid deal by the time of deployment," said Silver, who said it would take 12-18 months for enterprises to begin rolling out Vista to their workstations. "By that time the bugs will be worked out."

Cherry agreed. "I don't think [activation] is unreasonable. Microsoft has a right to protect its products."

But Cherry would like to see some changes to the program, too. "I'd like to know where I sit in terms of my licenses. I want to buy exactly what I need, no more and no less." For that reason, he thinks Microsoft should tie volume licensing pricing and monitoring with Volume License Activation. "Both sides' needs must be met," he said. "Microsoft should provide [the customer] with an inventory of all the licenses in an organization."

One thing that he's sure of is that the program will change. "As this evolves, we'll see it adjusted. Piracy is like security, with back and forth between the two sides. I'd like to see this evolve into a complete picture of licensing in terms of legitimacy, how many licenses are necessary and available. That would give something to both [Microsoft and enterprises]."