Saturday, December 16, 2006

Windows Genuine Advantage ( WGA ) needs a new name.... Windows Genuine Extortion

UPDATE: If you are looking for information on how to pirate Windows you have come to the wrong blog. I recommend you take a look at Linux and Apple. If you must use Windows pony up the $80 to NewEgg.com and buy a OEM copy of the software and be legal!

From Wikipedia

Extortion is a criminal offense, which occurs when a person either obtains money or property from another through coercion or intimidation or threatens one with physical harm unless they are paid money or property. Euphemistically, refraining from doing harm is sometimes called protection. Extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime groups. The actual obtainment of money or property is not required to commit the offense. Making a threat of violence or a lawsuit which refers to a requirement of a payment of money or property to halt future violence or lawsuit is sufficient to commit the offense. The simple four words "pay up or else" are sufficient to constitute the crime of extortion. An extortionate threat made to another in jest is still the crime of extortion.

Looking Back

My mother needed a windows system that would stand the test of time. It needed to just work and provide her with the applications that she used. She really didn't care about all the features, but I settled on XP Pro so that I could remote control the system from afar. Back in 2002/2003 it seemed like the most viable option for her needs. In retrospect it pains me to know that decision ended up costing me far too much of my time over the past several years.

I setup my mother's system almost three years ago with Windows XP professional. Being a good geek at the time the only good way to install XP was slipstreamed with SP1 and a VLK to avoid "activation woes". The setup was painless and the system has been operation since that time with need for little more than an occasional cleanup and defragment. This year as Microsoft started pushing WGA I knew it would eventually lead to nothing but trouble for us.

In the past few months the WGA Notifier finally made it's appearance on my mothers system and she has been calling me ever since to get it fixed. Recently I went over to try and clear this up by resetting the product key to a perfectly valid OEM key.

Note: I know that the use of the VLK was technically in breach of the license, but at the time it was the most effective way to do a slipstreamed installation without the hassles of activation. This was not an attempt at piracy since I had a fully licenced copy availible. Between OEM cruft installed by default and activation it was far easier ( at the time ) to do it this way.


Windows Genuine Annoyance


My mom called and complained to me time and time again that the messages were "everywhere" and would not go away. I had no idea that she was being quite literal and the messages were far more pervasive and annoying than I thought possible of Microsoft.

There are messages on the logon screen, there are timeouts when you log in, taskbar popups that would make any scammer proud, and of course the inability to do anything on Microsoft's site without being nagged or outright prohibited because they believe you are a dirty pirate. It's not bad enough that they are nagging the crap out of you, but clicking on the balloon "To resolve now" is an exercise in frustration. The problem occurs because the WGA task bar widget opens the pages in the default browser, unfortunately for those of us who have decided to turn off IE, those pages launched are useless in firefox.

So all of these messages from Microsoft to resolve the problem are just dead ends for those who have a safe browser installed.


"Get Genuine" aka I Want My $150 Dollars Now!


After activating IE6 I was able to finally make some heads or takes of what was going on with the system and I became infuriated. From my perspective I had the following four option available to me.

I already knew that I could re-install from original media and use the OEM key to create a working system, but this was a none to pleasant option for a system that has been running for almost 3 years. The fact of the matter is that restoring the system to all of it's functionality would be a full time job for me even with the backups that I have. All of the software on CD or downloaded over the years would have to be reinstalled and reconfigured to work in a manner that my mother had become accustom to.

According to the Genuine Advantage webpages I could "Get Genuine" and avoid a re-installation by ponying up $150 in order to appease Microsoft ( for the time being ). They would provide me with tools and keys that would make the error messages go away and even send me copies of the software on CD for future re-installations.

I could try and update my installation with other tools in order to get it to recognize a perfectly valid OEM key for XP Professional, but the documentation for that is scant at best.

I could go back to the warez groups and use some WGA removal tools to stop the nag/spyware that Microsoft has installed on my mothers computer.

Unfortunately for me I selected trying to get windows to recognize my perfectly valid OEM key.

I started my quest with the standard search of Google and came up with a Knowledge Base article from Microsoft. With it I was able to get the system to fail activation, but for some reason I could not get it to take the new product key. This was ok, I would jut call the activation hotline since they have been helpful in the past with strange error messages like this. This time they were initially helpful and even waited as the very slow system rebooted, but then were unable to help. The real kicker was when I mentioned that I was trying to change keys because I was getting a WGA error. The person on the phone told me to buy the $150 "Get Genuine Kit" and then proceeded to hang up on me.

At this point I am livid and I have to take a break from the computer.

Getting Real Help


That same evening I went home armed with new information about why, why, and how. It turns out that the only reason the validation is failing is because the venerable VLK used has been blacklisted by Microsoft. Going online with the search "VLK OEM" I was able to finally pull of the correct answer to my quandary. Microsoft has a product called the "KeyUpdateTool" that helps to convert a VLK to an OEM key including updates to the software to make it valid. Why was this not the first option that Microsoft presented to people rather than a demand for payment? I will be trying out this tool in the next day or so to see if it's working and I will report back.

I was also able to find forums run by Microsoft when researching this story, forums that were not apparent on any of the screens that the WGA tools brought up. These program presume guilt and act accordingly without fear of repercussions. My mother probably would have been incapable of divining this option from the information given and would have been forced to "pay up" had I not come to her aid.

Extortion

"To protect your copy of Window, you must click Get Genuine now."

"pay up or else" ... I was not kidding when I said it was Windows Genuine Extortion. This whole process is designed to intimidate and coerce customers in to paying protection money to Microsoft. This is not some vague threat, but a specific threat to withhold fixes to manufacturing defects. They fail to properly disclose how this could be in error and they do not help the customer with the issues that their software is directly responsible for creating. It's not like people are asking for a free upgrade to Vista, we are talking about security bugs and engineering defects in XP. Even the threat to withhold these fixes without payment should constitute extortion on behalf of Microsoft.

Make no mistake, this is a clear cut protection racket designed to earn more revenue from customers to frightened, lazy, or busy to discover the truth for themselves. It's use as an anti-piracy tool is limited since those people truly pirating XP will disable the WGA notification and use a 3rd party patching tool to get their security updates. Yes, the people really hurt by this change are those honest customers that want to "do the right thing".

Looking Forward


Had I the option I would have installed Linux in a heartbeat, but unfortunately my mother was far too tied to specific, proprietary, software to make that a real option. Had Apple been where it is today I would have gone with OS X in a heartbeat. But for now it's XP or bust and I have to deal with the mess that Microsoft has created for it's customers.

The next generation of Microsoft products only make the whole system worse. WGA is now an integral part of Vista. This should at least reduce the number of false positives the systems creates, but it now means that every user making almost any change to the hardware of their system will invoke the wrath of "Activation" by calling Microsoft and begging to be allowed to continue to use the software they purchased legally.

Mark my word, this whole process has soured my palate for Microsoft. I have up until now believed "The right tool for the right job" but I can no longer in good conscience recommend Microsoft because of this latest attack on it's customers. Thankfully looking around we have several options available to us. Both Apple and Linux's offering are robust and compelling for the modern consumer. While all have some shortcomings there are very few customers for whom Apple or Linux are not an acceptable option moving forward. Even if Microsoft never goes to trial for this criminal offense I can only hope that they are tried in the "Court of public opinion" and people see this for mess that it is.

Postscript


The other night I went over armed with the KeyUpdateTool and this time I had much more success. It took me a total of 30 minutes to use the key, reboot, and then do a telephone activation. Now her system is "genuine" and "authorized". While I understand Microsoft's wish to combat piracy, they only thing that they really accomplish with this latest round of inquisitions is to further aggravate customers by treating them, once again, like criminals. Shoot first and ask questions later is not a smart way to build a lasting relationship in the market.

After speaking with mom we have come to the conclusion that her next system will probably be a nice shiny Apple MacBook.

Post-Postscript


If you want to read up on more stories just like this all you need to go to Microsoft's own forums. There is story after story after story after story after story after story after story and I'm just getting warmed up. My personal favorite is "My Mother is a Software Pirate".


3 comments:

Dave said...

Having long since done that dance, you have my sympathies. However, you do need to be aware that just as your original VLK was compromised (publicly leaked) and used by people like you, your ne OEM key is also susceptible to compromise and you may well wind up doing this all over again (and again), (and again).

Eric said...

Dave,

The exception I take is that this is the OEM key for the unit ( as in the sticker that's on the box ). If that key is compromised it's because Dell has leaked the key.

The use of a VLK initally was a mistake, but was in no way meant to be pirating.

Anonymous said...

this is now happening with the "evaluation copy" of win 7, but this is worse. Every 2 hours the computer automatically shuts down which means it can seriously damage hardware in your computer, also a whole bunch of 'threat' messages. Also I've noticed that ever since the start of March (when this began happening) programs and games aren't working correctly like they were, and a crashing, or coming up with faults. I do not believe this is mere coincidence, but an infringement on windows purposely damaging those computers not paying $240 for the real thing. Well the expiration date on the evaluation copy is June NOT March. I was going to buy windows 7 but there extortionate ways have sent me away. I'm going to just use my old xp copy, and from now on buy mac. Damn monopolising bastards!