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Microsoft goes double agent on spyware

It’s estimated that the cost of software piracy worldwide is in the neighbourhood of $34 billion in 2005, with piracy rates in developed countries hovering between 20 and 30 per cent.

It’s estimated that the cost of software piracy worldwide is in the neighbourhood of $34 billion in 2005, with piracy rates in developed countries hovering between 20 and 30 per cent. In Canada it’s pegged substantially higher, at around 36 per cent, which means one in three programs in use in this country was likely obtained illegally.

In some countries, like Vietnam, Indonesia, China and Pakistan, about 90 per cent of all software is pirated.

Not that piracy has put anyone out of business, but it’s a given that most companies would like to recover a share of those lost revenues.

No doubt that’s what prompted Microsoft to start pushing its "Windows Genuine Advantage" software a year ago. The purpose of this software was ostensibly to prevent people using pirated or unregistered software from downloading updates, patches or other add-ons from Microsoft, but recently the service has been criticized as nothing more than spyware.

Spyware refers to hidden programs that live on your computer and spy on your activities, reporting back to whoever sent them through the Internet. Some spyware is relatively benign, such as programs that check back with head office occasionally for things like security and software updates, but other programs are more malignant and go so far as to snoop on individuals’ personal habits.

Good or bad, spyware also creates clutter, sucking up processor time and memory, and sometimes hogging your Internet bandwith as the programs send and receive information through the web. People who don’t do regular spyware checks often experience serious performance issues, only to discover they’ve somehow downloaded hundreds of active spyware programs.

The problem with Windows Genuine Advantage, the critics say, is that it’s always on and talks to Microsoft head office on a daily basis.

Microsoft denies this qualifies WGA as spyware, but has since agreed to change the program so that it only phones home about twice a month.

Still, that hasn’t stopped a Los Angeles resident from attempting to launch a class action against Microsoft for allegedly breaking laws to protect consumers from spyware, claiming the company did not inform the public before spreading WGA through a routine software update.

Whatever the outcome of the suit, or whether it even gets to court, computer users can probably expect to see more anti-piracy efforts like this in the future. One of those efforts might even be successful.

Which would be a shame. Not because I support stealing software but because computers have the potential to lift individuals and even whole nations out of poverty, and software is bloody expensive. That’s the real reason why 90 per cent of computers in countries like Vietnam and China are running pirated software – it has nothing to do with morality.

And that’s why I’m pretty sure I’ve run some "grey area" software myself in the past when I didn’t have two nickels to rub together – I didn’t know if my software was pirated and I didn’t want to know.

The fact is that if people didn’t use pirated software, a lot of people couldn’t afford to use their computers at all.

In Canada, a copy of Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2 is about $230. Microsoft Office 2003 is $460. Both seem overly expensive, especially when new versions of both are just months away.

Costs are similarly high for Apple users, and higher in some cases with new upgrades for their OSX operating system coming down the pipe every 18 months or so to set you back another $150.

It’s the upgrades that always get you. You can skip the odd one, but sometimes that only costs more in the long run because you end up having to buy a whole replacement program instead of a few smaller upgrades to keep up.

It’s my belief that if software was priced lower from the beginning then piracy wouldn’t be as big an issue. I know when I ran my "greyware" I was always afraid that one day my programs would stop working, or worse that I’d be arrested. Would the judge care that I would have run legal software if I could have afforded it?

As it stands, with Web 2.0 poised to become a reality in the next five years, there might come a day where we no longer buy software, we rent it. Because all software will be web-based instead of downloaded from disks, operating systems and programs will be constantly upgraded as long as we keep paying our fees.

Exactly how high those fees will be is the billion-dollar question.

Website of the Week Yes, this is the site of the National Television Academy, which hosts the often-intolerable Emmy Awards. How many times can we get the cast of ER and Dennis Franz on stage in a single night? Recently, however, the National Television Academy has started to award broadband productions as well for news and documentaries – this year’s nominees were announced last week, and are worth watching.