Microsoft has kicked off a new era in its history recently, actively nagging users who are using counterfeit or pirated versions of their operating system software. Up until the recent addition of the “Windows Genuine Advantage” program, Microsoft really didn’t do a whole lot to prevent people from using their software without stealing it. Doesn’t it seem odd that a company with access to billions of dollars couldn’t come up with a solution adequate to prevent piracy and counterfeiting until now?
One old theory is that, in the early days of the MS/PC/DR-DOS wars and extending into the battles between Windows 3.1/NT and OS/2, Microsoft really didn’t mind people stealing their software because it increased their market share. Keep in mind that the early personal computing era, piracy was rampant, and there was no Internet enabling instant online registration key comparisons. Enthusiasts, hobbyists, and professionals alike freely copied software, including the operating system, from one machine to another. People traded 5.25-inch floppy disks with their favorite software, often taking home copies from the office to install at home. Despite Bill Gates’ famous open letter chiding the amateur market for stealing Altair BASIC, Microsoft’s marketing department later realized that it this free and easy copying would help them to eventually dominate the world operating system market. After all, after bundling with an established platform, giving things away is one sure way to build an installed base.
And now that they have the vast majority of all desktop installations in the world - pirated or not - they can finally begin to lock down and charge for them. This “nefarious” plan sounds great, except that they’ve missed the boat by at least two years. In reality, if Microsoft chooses to lock down their operating system to “paying customers only,” they will instead fuel their worst nightmare: The mass migration of millions of potential customers onto other operating systems, and the best case is that they will simply continue to pirate Windows!
How can that happen? The perfect storm of Apple, Linux, and virtualization makes it possible for people to move away from Windows. So far, security concerns haven’t been enough to force people away en masse, but just imagine how quickly people will jump ship when their system starts bugging them every ten minutes! The only thing that might keep them is the requirement to run Windows-only software, but VMWare can run Windows on both Linux and Apple.
Suddenly, running an entire buggy OS and having it nag you constantly is no longer worth your average Malaysian’s while, especially when they can get some free virtualization software to free them from the grasp of legacy support. In one scenario, they shell out for a Mac and OS X, and in the other they install Linux. Either way, for those few painful moments when they need to run Windows, they just boot up a pirated copy of Windows in a virtual machine, get their work done, and then shut it down. No mess, no fuss, and no reason to ever buy Windows again.
The only way out of this problem is to do what Microsoft has been doing for years: Allow the pirates to exist, and make sure the huge companies are under your thumb. It is far easier to hold accountable a Bank of America or an Accenture, or to make licensing agreements with an OEM like Dell, than to attempt to squeeze an entire nation of people with dubious cultural respect for copyright. But if the people figure out they don’t need your operating system at home, it won’t last long at the corporate level, either.