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Windows Genuine Advantage: When is a planet a black hole?


By Scott Bradner


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


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


Microsoft claims that 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; it is way more intrusive and runs way more often than needed for its stated function.  Second; people were fooled into installing it along with much needed security patches. Third; Microsoft has been in stealth mode about just what the software does.  The last is what this column is about.  Microsoft is not stupid so why does it act so stupid?  Did they think that the spyware functions of WGA would stay hidden from the user community?  If so, what planet were they on?  Now they have a world of upset users, they have had to back off some of the intrusiveness, and they are being sued for, among other things, violating anti-spyware laws in various places.


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


Computer companies are not alone in refusing to tell their customers the most basic information.  Flying back from overseas on July 4th I got caught up in the aftermath of a short thunderstorm at JFK Airport.  For more than 5 hours Delta Airlines steadfastly refused to make any public announcement on prospects that we would ever take off.  (Delta personnel did respond to one-on-one questions but gave contradictory information.)  When I finally got home I found a series of email messages from Orbitz that provided far more information than Delta was telling anyone at JFK.  I do not doubt that the Delta people on the front lines were being kept as much in the dark as the customers were but I have no idea why Delta thought that this procedure would endear them to their hostages ... er, customers.  Maybe the Delta communications director lives on the same planet as Apple and Microsoft do.


Come on guys, get off of the black-hole planet and just be honest with your customers - it will save you pain in both 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).