Analyst: Microsoft's Revamped WGA Puts Burden On Users

Among the modifications to what Microsoft calls the WGA Notifications Tool for Windows XP are a revamped installation wizard that's designed to provide users with more information on validation results and a new category, called "indeterminate," that sits between the black-or-white of "genuine" and "nongenuine." In addition, Microsoft said that it would give Windows XP customers new tools to "troubleshoot the problem and learn more about the results" when the anti-counterfeit software can't make up its mind whether the copy of Windows is legitimate or not.

The developer's Windows Genuine Advantage program has been regularly knocked by users and analysts since Microsoft debuted the notifications component in April. Notifications Tool, an addition to the already-in-use component that decides if Windows is valid or bogus, nags users of pirated copies with on-screen messages, balloons, and banners. In June, Microsoft took considerable heat when it was revealed that WGA "phoned home" to Microsoft's servers on a daily basis. Similar technologies and practices unveiled for Windows Vista also have been blasted as onerous.

"In addition to delivering the latest anti-piracy capabilities, this update incorporates customer feedback to improve the user installation and validation experience," a Microsoft spokesperson said Tuesday in an e-mail.

According to Microsoft, the update will be delivered via Automatic Updates. The company also has come under fire for pushing its anti-piracy software using this mechanism, which is usually reserved for security updates. This approach has been labeled spyware and is the subject of a class-action lawsuit. Only users with copies of Windows XP validated with four "known compromised product keys" will be served the update via Automatic Updates, however.

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Microsoft also pledged to update the Notifications Tool every three or four months, "as part of a commitment to continually evaluate and adapt to changes in software piracy," said the spokesperson.

Michael Cherry, an analyst for Directions on Microsoft, criticizes the newest changes. "I'm getting more and more bothered by the burden they're putting on the customer," he says. "All the benefit goes to Microsoft. There's nothing to make it a quid pro quo. If they had tackled everything about licensing, given us a way to inventory licenses, and simplified the text so we knew what the licensing meant and enforced licensing, that would be one thing. But that would have been hard."

Instead, says Cherry, Microsoft shoves more of its anti-counterfeit measures onto customers' shoulders, without giving them anything meaningful in return. The move by the company to hand users validation troubleshooting resources and tools is only the latest example.

Cherry suspects that the tools are a way for Microsoft to avoid some of the technical support calls that result when users are told their copy of Windows XP is bogus. "There are only so many people support can handle," says Cherry, who also points out that the calls are by nature long and involved. "Customers are annoyed and mad when they call. A call must take at least 15 to 20 minutes, a lot of that just to calm the person down."

Worse, says Cherry, is that users will now be steered toward self-help tools when piracy problems crop up. "I shouldn't have to be sent off on a whole day adventure to troubleshoot validation for Microsoft," he says.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to questions about the changes to WGA; its offices in Washington state were closed Tuesday because of snow and ice in the Seattle area.

Users who want to update their Notifications Tool manually can download the newest version from the Microsoft Download