I've received a lot of email about a new Microsoft policy that will affect almost everyone who buys a new computer in the coming months. And although I'm inclined to back Microsoft on this particular issue (imagine that!), I think it warrants some discussion. As many of you have discovered, Microsoft has embarked on an antipiracy jihad, one that requires PC makers to stop shipping "normal" media with their systems. Beginning with Windows 2000, PC buyers won't receive a standard Windows CD-ROM as they have in the past. Instead, they will receive a system recovery CD-ROM that is tied to that system—and that system alone. This change has one obvious effect: Users can't use the CD-ROM to install their copy of Windows on another machine—thus, it's a pretty effective measure against software piracy.

But some users are up in arms over the decision, and I've had some explain to me that they bought a new machine with the understanding that they were paying for and receiving a full copy of Windows. The truth is less exciting than this long-running fantasy—which probably resulted more from technology shortcomings than any desire on Microsoft's part to harm consumers. When you purchase a new PC, you don't get a full version of Windows per se but rather a license to run a copy of Windows on that PC only. Microsoft's new policy simply enforces this agreement—which wasn't feasible before, given the limited means available for distributing any OS with a new system.

I understand why Microsoft is taking this measure and why some people are upset. But if we look at why this is happening, I think you'll agree that it makes sense.

Microsoft will be the first to tell you that it loses billions of dollars each year to software piracy. Most of the loss comes from individuals who install copies of software on various machines, despite licenses that make it illegal to run the software on more than one. The phrase "We've all done it" pretty much sums it up, but that attitude has rankled Bill Gates since the early days of the PC industry, when he practically begged fellow users to stop making copies of Microsoft's paper-tape-based BASIC program. The stakes, of course, are much higher today.

In a future online world, we might expect Microsoft to institute an online "unlocking" scheme that would forever meld a single software installation to a single machine. With today's few options, it makes sense for Microsoft to start antipiracy measures with Windows and Office (the source of most of the company's revenues) and address machine bundles (the source of the bulk of Windows and Office sales).

Windows and Office will implement various antipiracy techniques, as outlined on Microsoft's Software Piracy Web site. Techniques include difficult-to-duplicate Certificates of Authenticity, edge-to-edge holograms, the Office Registration Wizard—and, beginning this year, removing full CD-ROMs from machine bundles. Each of these measures takes the company one step closer to the eventual goal: ensuring that every copy of its software is purchased legitimately.

Granted, many people who pirate software don't realize that what they're doing is illegal. One might say that these measures protect them from themselves. But it seems disingenuous for users to complain about not getting a full CD-ROM with their new Win2K-based systems: They will get a recovery CD-ROM that can get them back to the initial install if needed. Including a full CD-ROM with a new system was always intended to make sure users could get their systems back to a known state. In many ways, the recovery CD-ROM is even better than a full CD-ROM, especially from a PC maker's point of view. Often, PC makers include utilities, drivers, and applications that can't be found on the default Win2K CD-ROM. By providing PC makers with a way to include these items on a recovery CD-ROM, Microsoft makes resuscitating a dead system easier while preventing software piracy. That's far better for most users than a base Windows install that might not include needed drivers for video, networking, or sound.

The only real problem is the lack of communication. Microsoft should be more up front about this change and not pawn questions about the policy off on PC makers who weren't involved in the decision to begin with. Nevertheless, the decision itself is sound: Software piracy is a problem, and, frankly, a recovery CD-ROM serves most users better.