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WGA: When is a planet a black hole?


'Net Insider 


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 07/17/06


I just do not understand why companies are not more upfront in their interactions with customers. Far too many of them refuse to tell you what they are doing, even in cases in which it's certain they will be found out.


The highest-profile case of this inexplicable behavior in recent times is Microsoft's stunningly misnamed Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA). I understand why Microsoft would want to be sure the version of the Windows system on your machine is legit: Microsoft does lose a pile of money each year because some sleazy computer companies save some money by cloning copies of Windows without authorization. It also loses money when corporations clone copies of newer Windows versions to put on older computers rather than buy updates. But WGA is way overkill.


Microsoft says WGA strikes a "balance between having some form of enforcement, but [is] really focusing on making a more interesting, more exciting and more desirable Windows experience for those customers using genuine Windows." I'm not quite sure how a genuine version of Windows is more exciting than an identical clone - if anything, running a clone should be more exciting because of the risk of getting caught.


Microsoft made three big errors of common sense in WGA: First; WGA is way more intrusive and runs way more often than needed for its stated function. Second, people were fooled into installing WGA along with much-needed security patches. Third, Microsoft has been in stealth mode about what the software does. The last is what this column is about.


Microsoft is not stupid, so why does it act so stupid? Did it think the spyware functions of WGA would stay hidden from the user community? If so, what planet was it on? Now it has a world of upset users, it has had to back off some of the intrusiveness, and it is being sued for, among other things, violating antispyware laws.


Microsoft is not alone on that planet. A few months after Apple got well trashed for its MiniStore spyware function in iTunes, it did the same sort of thing again with Dashboard Advisory. Residents of that planet never think of telling their customers fully and clearly what their calling-home software does.


Computer companies are not alone in refusing to tell customers the most basic information. Flying back from overseas on July Fourth I got caught up in the aftermath of a short thunderstorm at Kennedy Airport. For more than five hours Delta Airlines steadfastly refused to make any public announcement about the prospects of our ever taking off. (Delta personnel did respond to one-on-one questions but gave contradictory information.) When I finally got home, I found a series of e-mails from Orbitz that provided far more information than Delta told anyone.


I do not doubt the Delta people on the front lines were being kept as much in the dark as the customers, but I have no idea why the airline thought this procedure would endear it to its hostages, er, customers. Maybe the Delta communications director lives on the same planet as Apple and Microsoft. Come on guys, get off the black-hole planet and just be honest with your customers - it will save you pain in the short and long run.


Disclaimer: Historically, Harvard mostly does long run but has not expressed an opinion on this use of black holes (and even Harvard's long run may not be long enough to make WGA look good).


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