Microsoft kills Vista's anti-piracy kill switch

No longer will the operating system switch to "reduced functionality mode" if it thinks you're running a stolen version.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published December 5, 2007 12:37AM (EST)

When Microsoft released Windows Vista earlier this year, the company decided to include a radical anti-piracy feature in the operating system. Well, I'm calling it a "feature"; most users have regarded it as a disastrous bug. Microsoft, meanwhile, has a more creative label: "Reduced Functionality Mode."

Oh, would that there were a God of Unacceptable Euphemisms, some all-powerful deity with a mean streak who would strike down with untamed wrath any marketing department who so recklessly mishandled the language.

Reduced Functionality Mode, to be precise, means that your computer is rendered unusable. You enter a "product key" to authenticate your copy of Windows, and if for some reason that key doesn't pass muster, Windows concludes you've stolen the software and reduces all functionality, refusing to run nearly every program until you enter another key.

Calling this state Reduced Functionality Mode is a bit like calling getting hit by a bus Reduced Mobility Mode, but one supposes Microsoft figured that was a better alternative than the more straightforward We've Shut Off Your Computer Because You're a Dirty Thief Mode.

Whatever the name, too bad for Microsoft that the whole thing was egregiously buggy, with numerous legitimate users getting pushed into RF Mode.

So today Microsoft announced it would scrap the system in its next Vista update. From now on, the company says, when Windows detects that you might be running a purloined copy, it will kindly offer you numerous on-screen messages pleading with you to get your act together -- but it will not reduce your machine's functionality.

All to good, obviously. In computer software just as in music and movies, copy-protection schemes are bound to cause more trouble than they solve; those who really want to get around the barriers find ways to do so (it is not at all hard to find fully-functional pirated copies of Vista), while those who are operating within the law end up frustrated to no end by protective measures. The failure of Reduced Functionality Mode proves this point quite elegantly.

And then there's this question, raised by the Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro: "How many programmers and how much time did Microsoft have to devote to building 'Reduced Functionality' into Vista?" he asks. "More important, what was the opportunity cost of that feature -- what other use could, or should, the company have made of those resources?"

Surely there was something else engineers could have been doing with their time, right?

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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