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Is Vista better than Windows XP, security-wise?


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December 4, 2007

Yesterday, Microsoft revealed that it is noticing piracy rates for its Windows Vista operating system that are fifty percent lower than of its Windows XP OS. Some security experts think that the overall decline in piracy rates is most largely due to the fact that Vista is a bit harder to fake than its XP counterpart.

Microsoft v.p. Mike Sievert said yesterday "piracy rates are lower because the Vista operating system IS tougher to hack into. There are many reasons for that, including the notion that businesses no longer have volume license keys that can be used to activate an unlimited number of machines."

Sievert also added "another is the fact that Vista machines that aren't properly activated pretty quickly become basically unusable once they enter their "reduced functionality mode."

For Microsoft, the overall gains have been significant. In its last earnings call, Microsoft said that about five percentage points of Windows' growth could be attributed to gains in piracy. Interestingly, Microsoft makes the experience a little less harsh for those running pirated versions of Vista.

With Vista's Service Pack 1, Microsoft is doing away with reduced functionality in favor of putting prominent notifications on systems that are not found to be genuine. Non-genuine systems with SP-1 will display a warning at start-up that the system is not properly activated.

Users will have the option to activate now or activate later as they wish, although the second option won't show up for some time.

Users will also have their desktop background changed to white and a prominent notification placed in the lower right hand corner saying that the machine is not genuine.

Nevertheless, and in a significant change, those with non-genuine or non-activated copies of Windows Vista will still be able to use their computer systems. Sievert said the change is designed to minimize the impact on customers who might unwittingly have gotten an illegitimate copy of Vista while still discouraging piracy.

"People won't want this experience," he said.

Sievert also added that "at the same time it will be broadly interpreted as being fairer to most users."

Some security industry observers still wonder if the move won't cause Vista piracy rates to trend back up over time...

They might think there are people who will deal with a copy of Vista they don't pay for but that has a notification on it. With the current Vista, they don't even have that option.

Also with Vista SP-1, Microsoft is closing two key loopholes that pirates have used to evade Microsoft's security measures. One involves mimicking the process used by large computer makers to preactivate their Vista machines.

The other extends the grace period that customers have to activate their computer, in some cases extending it for decades!

It's not the first time that the company has moved to close security holes in its activation process. In 2006, Microsoft changed Vista to disable a hack known as "Frankenbuild" that merged elements of the final Vista with a prerelease version.

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