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Microsoft loosens WGA for Vista SP1

New antipiracy check for first service pack

Microsoft will change the user experience of its automatic antipiracy checks in Windows Vista and also make it harder for hackers to bypass the system in the first service pack for the OS due out early next year.

Once Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) is installed on a PC, that computer will no longer go into limited functionality mode if a user or administrator fails to activate Vista on that system in 30 days or if the system fails Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) validation, which checks to see if a version of Vista is pirated or counterfeit. In Vista, WGA is called the Software Protection Program feature.

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First look: Windows Vista SP1

In limited functionality mode, a computer will shut down after 60 minutes and then allow only browser use. Now, instead of going into that mode, a version of Vista that has not been activated in 30 days will start up with a black screen and a dialogue box that gives users the choice of activating Vista now or later, said Alex Kochis, a group product manager at Microsoft.

If users choose to activate now, the screen prompts will lead them through the proper activation system. If users choose to activate later, all the usual functions of Windows will start up, but with a black screen in the background instead of whatever customised background screen a user had set for the system.

Then, after 60 minutes of use, a balloon dialogue box will appear on the screen reminding the user to activate Vista. It also will reset the background to black even if a user had replaced the black screen with a customised view.

The experience will be similar for machines that fail the WGA validation, except that users will be reminded that their copy of Vista is not valid and that they need to purchase a valid copy of the OS.

Kochis said it was feedback from business and enterprise customers that inspired Microsoft to make the changes to the user experience. Many of these customers have been waiting until SP1 to upgrade to Vista, which means Microsoft has received their feedback on the Software Protection Program only recently. SP1 is expected to be available in the first calendar quarter of 2008.

Business and enterprise customers were concerned about the idea that desktop computers in their organisations would cease to function in the usual way if a machine were not activated or validated properly, Kochis said.

"In some cases, it was a simple reaction to this concept, as in 'We don't like this'," he said. The complexity of getting a large number of users up and running again on Vista was also a concern.

In addition to these user-experience changes, in SP1 Microsoft also will include code to combat two of the most common hacker workarounds to the WGA system - OEM Bios and Grace Timer exploits - and their variants, Kochis said.


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