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MS offers real Windows XP to users of counterfeit software

Testing the waters in the UK?

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A Microsoft UK replacement scheme for pirate copies of Windows XP suggests the company is testing the waters to see how feasible it is to convert sections of its unlicensed user base to legitimate users. The scheme is however limited at the moment - to the UK, and to copies sold pre-installed on a new computer prior to 1st November. There are however clear signs that Microsoft considered running the offer for standalone retail product before taking a step back.

The instructions, for example, say at several points that you should send in "the product" without adding any 'if available' qualification, and in most cases with OEM Windows preinstalled on a PC you're not actually going to have a product apart from the PC itself. Similarly, the boilerplate witness statement looks very much like a witness statement written on the assumption that it will be applied to a standalone software package. Clearly Microsoft needs to clarify the online instructions, given that the confusion they're likely to cause will affect the uptake rate. A Microsoft spokeswoman suggested to The Register this morning that the witness statement is likely to be a general one used by Microsoft for pirate software reporting, but if that's the case it's still not very helpful.

Microsoft does have a long term and wide-ranging ambition to turn the very large numbers of users of counterfeit Windows into legitimate users. At the same time, it wants to hunt down the companies selling new PCs with pirate software on board, the (probably sensible) rationale here being that if this channel for pirate software is throttled then quite a lot of the problem will go away. Quite a lot of people will end up with pirate Windows installations via this route and either won't know or won't care, whereas a lot less people are likely to go to the trouble of of downloading and installing software when they've already got something on the PC.

So one of the questions here is whether it's more important with the current offer for Microsoft to legitimise the users, or more important to obtain leads and evidence that will allow it to take action against the sources. Or possibly, even to just frighten a reasonable percentage of the sources into cleaning their acts up.

Aside from being limited by the confusion factor, volume licence purchasers are excluded, as are people under 18 (which is perhaps a bit thoughtless, but is likely to be related to the validity of the witness statement) and "employees of Microsoft or its affiliates" (come on, would they really dare?). The offer itself expires at the end of next month, but you can make up to five submissions per person. There isn't much obvious advantage in the offer from the user's point of view, as first you have to use the standard Microsoft process to check whether or not your software is genuine, then collate any accompanying documentation, invoice or receipt, and the witness statement, then send it all to Microsoft. Then they might send you back a copy of the real software - unless there are other factors at play, then it's a bit of work for little obvious return.

Probably, vast numbers of people will not stampede to take this up, and we would not be surprised if the cost of the support phone calls far exceeds the other costs of the programme. There are however signs of where Microsoft would like to be with this kind of operation, as opposed to where it is at the moment. Its product identification guide for example claims that there's an "Is this copy of Windows legal?" link in Windows Explorer's help menu. Your writer failed to find this, and kept getting kicked into the Help Center instead, but readers tell me it exists, so no doubt it's me. Finding myself ignorant of bits of Windows always cheers me up anyway.

The Windows Genuine Advantage scheme potentially provides another component of an online legitimisation service. Here Microsoft is experimenting with easy terms validation in exchange for downloads and sundry special offers, and you could see how this could be expanded into a kind of combination carrot and stick system.

You can envisage an ideal (from Microsoft's point of view) world where software was authenticated online, where support and fixes were conditional on the software either being legitimate or legitimised, and where the penetration of pirate copies of Windows was at least substantially reduced. How do you get there from here, though? Microsoft is clearly testing the waters, but really all that means is that it's trying to find out how. ®

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