Who’s in charge here?

December 18, 2006

Hats off to Microsoft, who this weekend achieved the impressive feat of persuading me to ditch Vista before it’s even been released.

Admittedly, I was using an unlicensed copy. I was interested to see what Microsoft’s new flagship OS is going to do to people’s expectations of a user interface (I think the short answer is “lower them”), so when I heard that the final version had leaked onto the net, I thought I’d treat myself to a preview. I used a temporary activation crack because, although the software went RTM in November, individuals like me can’t actually obtain a legitimate product key until January.

A few weeks later, a “Windows Validation Update” appeared on Windows Update. Did I want to download it? Of course I didn’t – so I unticked the box, closed Windows Update, and thought no more of it. The next time I logged onto my computer, however, I was greeted by a large, obtrusive requester. “This copy of Windows is not genuine,” it insisted. Various OS functions had been disabled, and to get them back I would need to “reactivate” with a valid product key. The update had been installed.

Now, I can’t deny that I was fairly busted with an unlicensed copy of Vista; but the manner in which it happened rings alarm bells. It’s been commented elsewhere that Vista is compromised by design (the “trusted installer” process can be controlled by software, but the user can’t ever elevate himself to the same privilege level), but I didn’t expect Microsoft to be so ready to remotely patch my system. Their ability to do this without the user’s permission has alarming implications for security, privacy and systems integrity.

Unsurprisingly, Vista’s gone from my PC now. Did they really think I’d rush out and buy it just so they’d stop hacking into my machine? It sounds more like a protection racket than a bona fide licensing scheme.

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