Although Microsoft did not identify the number of affected systems Saturday, based on the user comments and Liu's promises, it appeared to be systemwide. If so, it would be the biggest problem so far in the developer's contentious WGA programme. Designed to spot pirated copies of its Windows and Office software, WGA has been mandatory since mid-2005 before non-security updates or files can be downloaded from Microsoft's site.
WGA has faced criticism almost since its inception, but until Friday the most vocal complaints dated back to June 2006, when users discovered that the Windows XP version of WGA was 'phoning home' to Microsoft every time the PC was booted. Those critics returned when Microsoft upped the ante with Vista by replacing the WGA messages that only nagged XP users suspected of running counterfeits with a new policy that used a reduced functionality mode (RFM) to cripple machines. In RFM, only Internet Explorer works, and then for just an hour at a time.
Because RFM only allows a grace period of three days to those who previously activated Windows but are subsequently deemed pirates, any problems must be fixed quickly to prevent customers' PCs from going dark. Microsoft managed to beat the deadline. That, however, didn't mean much to some, who said this was it for their relationship with the vendor. One claimed that he was heading out the door to buy a Mac, while others swore they would switch to Linux.
Others called on Microsoft to ditch WGA. "Once again the legitimate person gets screwed while the people who pirate software probably aren't even affected," said Mark in the support forum. "This whole validation process should be dropped. This is just another nail in the Microsoft coffin."
Saturday's outage was not the first time the validation service has gone dark and then identified all PCs connecting with the servers as running pirated copies. In October 2006, Microsoft's Kochis acknowledged a similar blackout. "Earlier this week a server on the backend of the WGA service experienced a bug that resulted in a temporary outage. As a result, some systems were incorrectly flagged as being non-genuine, and we want to confirm for those who contacted us about this that it was indeed an error," he wrote.