When saying sorry won’t be enough

Ars Technica reports that Microsoft’s anti-piracy service, Windows Genuine Advantage, suffered a global outage on Friday:

Late last night we started receiving reports from readers experiencing problems with Windows Genuine Advantage authentication. Users of both Windows XP and Windows Vista were writing to say that they could not validate their installations using WGA, and one user even said that his installation was invalidated by the service.

We contacted our sources at Microsoft, who told us off the record that the company is aware of a major WGA server outage affecting users across the globe. The Windows Genuine Advantage support forum has exploded with complaints, as a result, and Phil Liu, WGA project manager, says that he won’t sleep until the problem is fixed. Windows Vista and XP are affected, 32- and 64-bit versions.

Another bad day for relying on technology, following last week’s Skype outage where Microsoft’s update patching featured large.

The WGA outage occurred at the end of a week and into a weekend and was quickly resolved, according to Ars Technica:

Word from Microsoft is that this problem has been fixed, and all users affected should revisit the WGA site and re-validate. There’s no explanation as to why Microsoft was originally telling people to wait until Tuesday, but the good news is that the problem has been solved.

Overall impact is likely to be minimal. And it certainly isn’t a crisis.

But imagine if this had happened at the start of a week or at the time of a major event. Imagine millions of people and businesses around the world suddenly unable to authenticate the operating system running their PCs, or trying to validate Windows when wishing to install other applications that make use of WGA.

An event like this will undoubtedly mean a final straw for some people who already have little faith in Windows Vista, and who will switch to alternatives like Linux.

But for the majority – which I’d say is likely to be 99% of PC users – switching won’t be an option. And that’s individuals. Even less of an option for companies with thousands of PC deployed in the workplace and major investments in the Windows platform.

What this highlights is simply a system that doesn’t work.

Writing in PC World magazine, Harry McCracken summarizes it nicely:

[…] Microsoft owes its customers more than an explanation: I think it owes them a copy-protection scheme that doesn’t unnecessarily inconvenience them, never accuses them of having pirated software when they don’t, cannot disable functionality on a legitimate copy of the operating system, and isn’t marketed with a patronizing campaign that tells us it exists for our benefit, not Microsoft’s.

As McCracken also says, just saying sorry won’t cut it.

But can Microsoft rise to that challenge?


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