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Microsoft Details WGA's Successor in Piracy Fight

Windows 7 and Piracy, WAT and WGA
Goodbye, Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA). Hello, Windows Activation Technologies (WAT).

It's not just a name change, according to Microsoft claims.

With the final testing of Windows 7 which began Tuesday, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is talking about a persistent problem -- reducing software piracy -- and how it's trying to make the validation experience cause less friction with legitimate licensees. That's where WGA and WAT come in.

WGA is Microsoft's much maligned anti-piracy technology. WAT is, hopefully, WGA without the irritation. Why does Microsoft need it? Software piracy costs companies worldwide as much as $45 billion a year, the company says.

Microsoft officials argue that piracy injures more than the software developers. Users can unknowingly buy a pirated copy of Windows with malware embedded in it, with results like stolen identities, broken passwords, and lost financial details. In addition, vendors that sell PCs with genuine Windows end up being undercut in the marketplace by pirates who haven't paid for Windows.

Microsoft officials know whereof they speak. Vista itself was pirated within about a week after it was first delivered to customers in November 2006.

To date, however, Microsoft's attempts date to enforce legitimate software licensing for its products have been problematic. With Windows 7, Microsoft hopes it's got the best answer to the problem so far.

For users of Vista, the Windows 7 activation process is nearly identical to what they're already used to, Joe Williams, general manager worldwide Genuine Windows at Microsoft, said in an online statement.

"The customer’s experience of product activation and validation in Windows 7 are built off of our Software Protection Platform that we introduced with Windows Vista," Williams said.

That's because the validation and activation technologies in Windows 7 constitute an update of those developed for Windows Vista Service Pack 1, which shipped last year.

In fact, Williams added, Vista has been much harder for pirates to break into than Windows XP. Microsoft is aiming to reduce piracy rates even further.

One important change that arrived with SP1: Microsoft disabled WGA's so-called "kill switch." That component reduced Vista to a "reduced functionality" mode if it determined that the operating system did not pass validation tests showing it was legitimate. However, due to complaints from users who encountered false positives, Microsoft took it out.

In Windows 7, the company is focusing on making the activation experience as smooth as possible for legitimate users.

For example, with Vista SP1, users were asked if they wanted to activate their software immediately or later. If the user wanted to choose "later," the button to make that choice was grayed out for 15 seconds before the user could click on the button. That wait time has been removed, Williams said.

"When customers choose to activate later they will see a dialog box highlighting how activation helps them identify if their copy of Windows is genuine and be allowed to proceed immediately without a 15-second delay. In Windows 7 we’ve made changes so that users will see more informative notifications messages and be able to more easily complete the tasks they need to," he added.