Microsoft updates WGA to find counterfeit Windows XP Pro

Microsoft Corp., tacitly acknowledging the continued popularity of Windows XP, said Tuesday it was updating the operating system's anti-piracy technology to detect illegal copies installed with newly-stolen or faked product keys, or with new activation cracks.

In an entry to a company blog, Alex Kochis, senior product manager for Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) program, spelled out the update to WGA Notifications. That's the antipiracy component that provides the messages and other on-screen prompts when the other half of WGA, dubbed Validations, detects an illegal copy of the operating system.

"This update includes the latest validation information, including recently stolen or misused product keys and other information," said Kochis, who elsewhere in the blog noted that the "other" category included "attempts to circumvent product activation." Such circumvention methods, called "cracks," are popular downloads on file-sharing sites that also feature pirated software.

The update applies only to Windows XP Professional, added Kochis.

Although Microsoft tried to put a stop to Windows XP sales last year -- and will be shifting it into a more limited support plan next month -- it has relaxed its rules several times since then as customers have continued to demand new PCs with XP rather than Vista. Windows XP Professional is the only version that Microsoft allows users and computer sellers to "downgrade" from Vista.

The company has also acknowledged that Windows XP Professional is preferred by pirates over Vista by wide margins, and last year promised it would roll out a campaigns during 2009 to warn people that XP is widely counterfeited.

Kochis touted installation changes to WGA Notifications, although he wasn't clear on what those changes were. "Once the update has been downloaded by Automatic Updates, completely in line with your existing AU settings, after the next login or reboot the install wizard will be presented to the user and they will be able to choose whether to install the update in the same way as in past releases," Kochis said.

That description, however, is essentially the same as he offered in August 2008, when Microsoft last updated WGA Notifications for Windows XP Professional. Then, Kochis said that users who installed the August update would receive future updates automatically once they had approved WGA's installation.

In a reply to questions about what has changed in WGA, if anything, a Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed that there have been no alterations in how WGA Notifications installs and updates. "The Notifications experience will be the same as the previous release of WGA Notifications Update for Windows XP that began deployment in August of 2008," she said via instant message.

Last August was also when Microsoft brought Windows XP's counterfeit nagging into line with Vista's. Counterfeit copies of XP Professional display an initial black desktop, which reverts back to black after an hour if the user changes the background; pirated copies also show a permanent notice in the bottom-right corner of the screen, and additional notices appear regularly in the system tray.

Those characteristics of WGA Notifications haven't changed, said Kochis yesterday.

This story, "Microsoft updates WGA to find counterfeit Windows XP Pro" was originally published by Computerworld.

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