Revulytics Blog

Microsoft is in the Black with the Chinese

November 17, 2008


Although I am not a complete supporter of the WGA program as it was first implemented, Microsoft's latest tactic to warn Chinese users about using Microsoft software is not completely off base. In the latest coverage of this issue (see yesterday's Financial Times article), it appears that Microsoft is continuing to get a lot of heat for its tactic of changing the desktop appearance to be black when pirated versions of Office or Windows are detected.

It should be noted that the Windows software and the desktop itself remain functional. However, if you are dealing with an uneducated consumer, the desktop background suddenly becoming black could be alarming. The approach is not unlike other vendors we work with who detect that their software has been tampered with (a byproduct of most pirated works) and place a watermark on outputted files (e.g., CAD drawings, simulations, or analysis files) in such a way that if they are distributed you could determine that they were produced using tampered software.

I believe Microsoft simply wanted to alert and educate the Chinese user base on the extent of the Windows piracy problem versus preventing it. However, I would propose an alternative and more direct approach for Microsoft - and one that could be positioned as an added value for the user. This approach would leverage the fact that Windows software has to be tampered with to enable piracy, which allows Microsoft to alert users that the tampered Windows software could be harmful to them (contains malware, doesn't calculate the correct results, etc.).

To implement this Microsoft would continue to detect that the software installed is not valid and then react with notifications and embedded watermarks only when the software is used and in a delayed fashion: tamper alerts could be integrated within the Office software and be triggered by extended use of the functionality.

Tamper alerts could be presented on boot up, when using key features, accessing help, and with automatic updates. By using multistep piracy detection they could also minimize false positives (for example, checking the software image integrity as well as pirated license key -see the Financial Times article's reference to the use of a University of Pennsylvania license key). The reaction logic should activate over time and be associated with fairly significant use of the software (to avoid detection by piracy groups). This should be sufficient to produce the same result without the political backlash associated with the black screen effect. Of course, the detection and reaction logic would need to be integrated carefully and include redundancy to withstand the cracker rework efforts.


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Michael Goff

Post written by Michael Goff

Marketing Director at Revulytics
Michael is Marketing Director at Revulytics where he is responsible for corporate marketing, content, and social media. He has helped to educate the industry on the benefits of software usage analytics for compliance and product management through the company's blog and contributed articles in trade publications. Michael was previously a marketing programs manager at The MathWorks and principal at Goff Communications. Michael earned a J.D. from Boston University School of Law and a B.A. from Colgate University.