Microsoft has gone live with the Windows Genuine Advantage program, which seeks to prevent software piracy by ensuring that users who download software updates from Microsoft are running nonpirated Windows versions. The program, which has been available in an avoidable pilot version since late 2004, is now mandatory.
  
"During the 10-month pilot of Windows Genuine Advantage, we have been very encouraged by the large number of customers--more than 40 million in all--who chose to participate in Windows Genuine Advantage because they were concerned about piracy and wanted a way to determine whether their Windows software was genuine," said Will Poole, senior vice president of Windows Client Business. "It also became clear that customers want to take advantage of special offers reserved for genuine users, with the peace of mind that their software will deliver the features, options, and performance they need."
  
That statement almost makes the program sound like a customer service. The truth is that most of the 600+ million Windows users aren't really worried about whether they have legitimate copies of Windows. Nevertheless, they'll now be forced to undergo an Internet-based security check whenever they download Microsoft software add-ons. Fortunately, that check will likely be less painful than it was during the pilot program.
  
Microsoft says that the final version of Windows Genuine Advantage differs from the pilot program in a few ways. First, customers who use Windows Update, Microsoft Update, or the Microsoft Download Center will be forced to endure a Windows Genuine Advantage validation process whenever they attempt to download Microsoft software. To prevent hackers from using pirated Windows copies as zombie PCs in wide-ranging electronic attacks, however, the company will continue to release security updates that don't require the validation process. Microsoft also noted that it has somewhat simplified the Windows Genuine Advantage validation process; for example, users no longer need to enter a 25-character product key to validate their software.
  
Finally, users who try to validate software and discover that they're unwittingly (or otherwise) running illegitimate copies of Windows have a few options. According to Microsoft, qualifying customers who fill out a piracy report, provide proof of purchase, and send in their counterfeit CD-ROMs can receive a genuine copy of Windows XP Home Edition or XP Professional Edition (depending on which version they're using) at no cost. Customers who submit a piracy report can receive a genuine copy of XP Home for $99 or XP Pro for $149. (Those prices are about half of the full retail prices: XP Home typically costs $199, and XP Pro costs $299.) Visit the Microsoft Web site to learn more about the program.