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Microsoft rebrands WGA nagware for Windows 7

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A nagware anti-piracy feature in Windows isn't going away, it's just getting a marketing makeover by Microsoft.

Windows Genuine Advantage is being re-branded Windows Activation Technologies in Windows 7 and for updated versions of Windows Vista, the company has said.

Microsoft claimed the change reflected the use of "fundamentally" different technologies - new code and "latest methods" that work with Windows 7 and Vista components that are different to Windows XP - to stop PCs running pirated or illegal copies of Windows.

But the explanation makes no sense, given Windows 7 is based on the Windows Vista code and it was Windows Vista that saw long-running complaints over WGA reach their zenith with the creation of the ill-advised Windows Vista kill switch.

The kill switch penalized Windows Vista customers who'd failed to activate or register their copy of the operating system within 30 days or three days after a major change to the PC's hardware configuration by blocking certain key features.

Users would be denied access to features such as Aero Glass, ReadyBoot, and BitLocker, with Windows Vista running in an "out-of-grace reduced functionality mode."

Windows Vista's Service Pack 1 removed the kill switch, but WGA had already earned itself the kind of reputation where people start Googling work-arounds to de-install it.

Built to detect and prevent installation of pirated or illegal copies of software, WGA failed genuine copies of Windows in large numbers for reasons never explained.

One in five PCs running Windows XP have failed WGA tests since July 2005, but less than 0.5 per cent were reported to be running counterfeit software, according to figures from Microsoft released in January 2007. In 2006, Microsoft said that more than 20 per cent of WGA failures had been caused by something other than piracy of the keys used to activate the software.

Along the way, alerts would pop up. If WGA found your copy of Windows to be not genuine, unauthorized or not validated, you got repeated warnings of: "This copy of Windows is not genuine".

Despite these failures, Microsoft remains committed to the idea of WGA - hence the name change to break from the past as it introduces a brand new operating system.

If you chose not to activate your copy of Windows 7 immediately, the company said Thursday, you're still going to get an annoying alert - but more in the vein of a peppy and irritating health and safety manager than a harsh headmaster ready with the cane. According to Microsoft, it has updated the Windows Vista SP1 reminder so: "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."

WGA is not going away. Microsoft has also hinted at changes in the Windows Vista and Windows 7 management tools to cater for virtualized images and volume activation. Also, the company promised: "More can always be done - which is why you'll continue to see us invest in anti-piracy efforts such as Windows Activation Technologies over the long term."

Interestingly, Microsoft did not tackle the hot-button issue of WGA from either the roadmap or re-branding perspective during its recent outing at the security industry's annual San Francisco, California - the RSA Conference. The company's corporate vice president trustworthy computing Scott Charney instead rehashed a previous pitch for "end-to-end trust" using its planned Geneva identity management and sign-in framework. ®

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