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Microsoft hides under duvet

As WGA blows up in its face

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Not since IBM invented a handwriting recognition system for banks, have I heard such cries of grief. To understand it, you have to know what WGA means. And if you've ever had a problem with Office, and been told by tech support "just install this patch" you'll know what it is: because it's the thing which, since September 2004, has told you it won't install it until you put your CD in the drive. And enter the key.

That's WGA. You've probably heard of WAG, which in headlines, stands for "wives and girlfriends" of World Cup football stars. WGA, however, stands for "We're All Gone" as Windows Genuine Advantage, it seems, has dumped on its inventors.

The problem is "false positives".

In the case of IBM, it turned out the one thing you can't do to wealthy and self-important bank clients, is say: "That signature is a forgery". Not unless it is, and even 0.01 per cent false positives is way, way too many. IBM was getting 5 per cent.

With WGA, I'm told, it's worse. It's too late to find anybody at home at Microsoft here in London, but my sources are insisting that the chatlines are red hot.

What WGA does is looks at Windows on your PC, and reports back home if it is pirate stuff.

The Genuine Advantage is, of course, Microsoft's advantage. The thing is, quite simply, a royal pain in the arse for the rest of us.

This is, after all, 2006, and almost half the world's PC users use notebooks; and a large proportion of those do not have a built-in CD drive. So, if you're out and about and a software problem arises which is easily fixed if you have a CD drive and an Office install CD about you, WGA is the beast which means you're stuffed till you get home and can find where you put the thing, and have found a working CD on the network. And, of course, assuming you can remember the install key...

Well, two weeks ago, it seems, Microsoft automatically updated Windows for all of us, and in doing so, updated WGA. That much is on record.

The new update, unfortunately, was a pre-release version. And it has suddenly announced to the world that almost all the Windows software installed at two large corporate users, is pirated, according to sources.

Really? Well, at the moment, it remains rumour. But if this turns out to be true, Microsoft could well face a horrid lawsuit, because installing pre-release code on a disk when the user didn't volunteer is, in every accepted sense of "moral behaviour", way off beam. You just don't do that.

And you really, really don't want to inform a client like Proctor and Gamble that it is pirating code; and, my sources insist, that's exactly what the beta code has been doing.

The exact cause of the cockup isn't clear, but it seems that the software was supposed to ignore Windows applications with corporate licence numbers. The assumption was that all Microsoft code on P&G hardware was installed by the IT department, using the corporate licence.

Well, apparently not. Individual users have bought their own copies and installed it themselves. And then, somehow, the WGA code looked for the corporate licence, didn't find it, and screamed blue murder: "Thieves! Pirates! Rascals!" - and P&G seems not to be amused.

When the rumour started spreading, users got together to share outrage. It quickly became apparent that some of them weren't at P&G and instead of having corporate rank, were quoting military rank. Yes; the USAF has also been tagged, according to sources, as a corporate pirate.

Of course, Microsoft will soothe the ruffled feathers in the normal way (90 per cent discounts, duh) and it will all blow over, and like UK ID cards, the fact that nobody likes it won't stop The Powers That Be from pushing ahead.

But, meanwhile, if you find Windows Update telling you about new software, best to go for "custom" and look through for what, exactly, they are updating.

And if it's Windows Genuine Advantage, probably best to skip it for now. Because right now the question: "WGAF?" has an easy answer: "P&G does!"

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