“Corporate Edition” versions of Windows have been the blessing of both IT workers and casual pirates since the days of Windows 95, when the operating system first started asking for a license key on installation. Large firms and OEMs who did not want to go through the hassle of typing in a CD key for every install received Volume License Keys (VLKs) that could be used on as many installs as necessary. Microsoft relied on the honor system to ensure that companies did not abuse this privilege, but it looks as if with Vista this system may be ending:
“We are making changes to the process to Vista and a new approach to VLK licensing,” Mike Sievert, corporate vice president of Windows client marketing for Microsoft told CRN during a recent interview. “We’re training our enterprise customers and we’ll do some key management for customers that’s more automated and makes reporting easier.”
The exact details of the “new approach” to VLKs haven’t been made clear, but Ward Ralston, a senior technology product manager at Microsoft, has confirmed that the company is “introducing the notion of a key management server” for Windows Vista Server. This program will require licensed customers to check in their keys and Client Access Licenses (CALs) every 30 days, via an automatic reporting process. The procedure for the Vista client will likely not require a key management server, but may also “phone home” periodically to report on the status of various VLK installs.
Microsoft has been slowly introducing more and more antipiracy controls with its software products ever since CD keys made their debut with Windows 95. Windows XP introduced product activation (WPA) that combined CD keys with a hardware hash generated at install time. Corporate editions did not require activation, and when pirate groups leaked corporate VLKs into the wild, Microsoft decided to attack the problem from the other end. These VLKs were marked as “invalid” and new keys issued to the corporations and OEMs that originally used them. This didn’t affect pirated copies of XP that had already been installed elsewhere, so Microsoft came up with the idea of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA).
WGA checked the user’s license key and compared it against a “blacklist” of known leaked VLKs. Microsoft made passing WGA mandatory to download noncritical updates from the Windows Update web site, as well as for many “free” downloads, such as the new version of Windows Defender. WGA was also found to periodically “phone home” license key information back to Microsoft.
The addition of new reporting tools for VLKs puts the antipiracy pressure back on corporations and OEMs. The debate over whether these measures actually defeat piracy is endless. While WGA was cracked early and often, Microsoft continues to make changes to the program to defeat the crackers, including embedding new versions of the WGA check into the installation executable for programs like the Internet Explorer 7 beta. At some point, many casual pirates may decide that chasing down all the cracks is simply too much effort.
The real question is whether or not adding new antipiracy measures to corporate versions of Windows will annoy IT managers enough to consider alternatives to Microsoft software. However, any move away from Windows will be slow if it happens at all—after all, the predicted backlash against Windows over XP’s product activation had no measurable impact on the platform’s market share. Microsoft is also not the only company introducing more stringent antipiracy reporting. Adobe added activation technology for all products (both PC and Macintosh) in their Creative Suite 2, and Quark has required the use of a “License Administrator” since version 6. Look for this trend to continue in the future, as software companies try to maximize their revenue in an era of increasing costs.