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December 4, 2007

Microsoft kills the Vista "kill switch"

Posted by David Hunter at 3:49 PM ET.

The most controversial aspect of  the original Windows Vista copy protection was the introduction of a “reduced functionality mode” better known as the “kill switch”. This was a state where users found themselves when they ran afoul of the Microsoft Software Protection Platform (also called Windows Genuine Advantage or WGA) and if their machines weren’t completely dead, they might as well have been. After many complaints, Microsoft today announced that with Vista Service Pack 1, the “kill switch” will be replaced by what can only be described as “nagware.”

Users whose systems are identified as counterfeit will be presented with clear and recurring notices about the status of their system and how to get genuine. They won’t lose access to functionality or features, but it will be very clear to them that their copy of Window Vista is not genuine and they need to take action.

This is a change in tactics from our current approach for Windows Vista, and it is based on great feedback from customers and partners. With the original release-to-manufacturers version of Windows Vista we released in November 2006, counterfeit systems can go into a state called reduced functionality mode, which essentially suspends a number of features of the system until the user takes action to get genuine.

Our new tactic, which takes effect with SP1 for Windows Vista and also will be part of Windows Server 2008, due out next year, is a proven and effective way to combat piracy. Customers want to know the status of their systems, and how to take action if it turns out they were victimized.

Very few people object to copy protection per se, but the unfortunate history of WGA on Vista producing false positives and invoking the kill switch evidently became too much of a customer annoyance and PR nightmare. Ed Bott has more on other Microsoft efforts to smooth the rough edges of WGA.

Also with SP1, Microsoft has added specific copy protection code to defeat the predominate early hacks:

We currently see two primary types of exploits pirates often use to generate counterfeit versions of Windows Vista. One is known as the OEM Bios exploit, which involves modifying system files and the BIOS of the motherboard to mimic a type of product activation performed on copies of Windows that are pre-installed by OEMs in the factory. Another is called the Grace Timer exploit. This exploit attempts to reset the “grace time” limit between installation and activation to something like the year 2099 in some cases.  Implementing exploits involves extreme alterations to key system components and can seriously affect system stability. 

So we are taking action. SP1 will include updates that will target those exploits and disable them.

It’s a never ending game though.

Filed under Genuine Advantage, Microsoft, OS - Client, OS - Server, Technologies, Windows Server 2008, Windows Vista

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