Treat your customers as friends, not enemies

Who are your customers? In the case of Microsoft, the answer appears to be “people who are trying to steal from us”.

Last week saw a major issue with the Windows Genuine Advantage system, which allows its customers to activate their software and use it. No WGA, and you can’t use your software – including, of course, the operating system which runs your computer. The situation got so bad that one Microsoft employee promised publicly that he wouldn’t sleep until until it was fixed.

Part of the original premise of WGA was that customer who chose to use it got little perks, additional software extras which formed a kind of “thank you” for using genuine Microsoft software. Hence, the “advantage” in WGA. However, WGA is compulsory for some products, notably Windows, and in the case of Windows Vista the application phones home to Microsoft every now and then just to make sure all is right with the world.

And this is the problem: making a system like WGA compulsory means that, in effect, you’re punishing honest customers for the acts of dishonest ones. As Joe Wilcox puts it:

“The U.S. software piracy rate—according to Business Software Alliance, some analyst studies and Microsoft data—is less than 25 percent. Presumably, the percentage is much lower for Windows, since most people obtain the software on new PCs. For argument’s sake, let’s say the U.S. Windows piracy rate is around 20 percent (and I think that number is too high). That would mean Microsoft penalizes eight out of 10 users by assuming everyone is a crook. The presumption of the check is guilt—otherwise why validate?”

Of course, Microsoft’s argument is that customers don’t suffer with WGA – but this week’s outage has put the lie to that. No software system is perfect, and building one capable of handling the millions of ongoing transactions involved in WGA is going to be a tough ask. And, if that system goes down, it is by definition the legitimate, legal customers which suffer: the pirates never actually bothered registering in the first place. And as Joe points out, the situation for Vista users is worse:

“For Vista users, there is an extra hardship. Consumers activate their software and then go through ongoing validations to further check for piracy. Failure to activate leads to the same counterfeit notices received today and late yesterday and eventual deactivation—so-called reduced functionality mode—of Windows Vista. The checks for businesses are more onerous. Vista editions activated using volume licensing keys must reactivate within every 180 days, or the software goes dark after 30 more day”

If ever there was a disincentive to upgrade to Vista, this has to be it.

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