Microsoft's Black Magic

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted June 01, 2000
by Robert J. Wagman

This summer Microsoft may summon up some evil spirits when it unveils the newest weapon in its fight against software pirates. In an attempt to cut down on the billions of dollars it loses to pirates each year, it's taking a chance that might alienate the businesses and customers that give it many billions more.

The "Office Registration Wizard," which Microsoft plans to ship with new versions of the Office 2000 software, monitors how many computers a specific copy has been installed on. As we reported last year, the wizard has been tested in Australia, Brazil, and China, and has been attached to highly discounted versions sold into the academic market. Since then, privacy has become a sore point with most tech companies.

Here's how the wizard works its magic: The fifty-first time users open the application, they will be prompted to register with Microsoft. The registration process includes name, postal address, and e-mail address, and the program itself takes a "snapshot" of the PCs hardware configuration. In return, Redmond gives users unique number codes to enter into the program, and ­ voila! ­ they can go back to using the software. Otherwise, it will cease to work.

According to Microsoft, the wizard is tolerant enough that users can install the software from the same CD-ROM onto a second computer. However, users have to register those second computers and get a second unlocking number. The wizard then allows re-installs on only those PCs.

When Microsoft first floated this idea last year, many critics charged that the system would run into problems when users bought new computers or upgraded their current ones. The company has a low-tech solution for this: Customer must call a toll free number and plead their case to a customer-service representative.

The wizard should accept most hardware changes, according to Jon Magill, director of business licensing at Microsoft. But the company is preparing its representatives for phone calls. "Our people are being told always to err on the side of the customer," Magill says. "If you do not get satisfaction initially, ask to speak to a supervisor who has broader powers." Who knew a few clicks could magically transport you into the midst of Redmond's corporate bureaucracy?

It's not clear whether other manufacturers will follow Microsoft's lead. In the past, other companies have required users to register when they downloaded upgrades or patches."The industry is watching this very closely both in terms of how effective it will be in curbing piracy, and how the public accepts it," says Peter Beruk, vice president of anti-piracy programs at the Software and Information Industry Association. Microsoft, in particular, will keep a particularly close eye on the subject. And it won't need a crystal ball to do it.

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