Windows 7’s New DRM – by “Yingqi G”

Last month saw a controversial update to Windows 7’s validation features. After the much aligned Windows Genuine Advantage several years ago, which requires you to verify your copy of Windows, February’s update to Windows Activation Technologies makes the check periodic. In light of the draconian DRM software in some recently released games, it seems consumers are fighting a losing battle to keep their computers free of the secret software police.

The only problem is that people are still buying the software. Among those who oppose DRM, one not uncommon argument is that DRM degrades the value of the product by making it less convenient to use than the alternative without DRM. This alternative is often just the original software with DRM removed, usually illegally. Thus, as the argument goes, DRM incentivizes piracy. Proponents of DRM believe that stronger, more pervasive DRM is the solution, while opponents of DRM believe the software publisher should remove the incentive to acquire copies illegally.

Both sides have seen their successes. On the one hand, many successful game publishers have managed to shift their software away from DRM by selling some value-add service, frequently in the form of multiplayer play. On the other hand, many game publishers have found success in digital distribution through Steam, a distribution channel tied to DRM that also requires regular online check-ins like Windows. In other words, history has yet to prove either side right.

Windows 7 adds an interesting twist to the question. While music, software, and other media containing controversial DRM are usually consumable entertainment, Windows 7 is an operating system. The DRM software doesn’t control your ability to enjoy any product in particular. It controls your ability to use your computer. It controls your ability to perform any number of functions, both in daily life and in business.

Fortunately, alternatives do exist. Apple is well-known for being equally if not more unfriendly to consumers for their completely pervasive DRM software that extends far beyond just verifying your operating system. And, of course, there’s the long tail containing UNIX, Linux, and other miscellaneous operating systems. Linux is a clear alternative to operating systems containing DRM software. However, again, as history seems to indicate, DRM isn’t a critical factor. Despite the clear-cut difference, that Linux doesn’t share Windows and OS X’s preference for potentially extremely inconvenient DRM, Linux has nowhere near the same market share.

The question of Linux’s market share is very hotly debated. However, it suffices to note that DRM on Windows hasn’t yet pushed a significant number of users to switch operating systems. There are plenty of reasons, and, unfortunately, none of them bode well for those of us who oppose DRM.

One reason is that many users just don’t notice it. While it’s still too soon to say anything about Windows 7’s new measures, Windows Genuine Advantage remained relatively invisible except for the one-time inconvenience when you first install Windows. Another large segment of Windows installations come from businesses, where IT generally shields users from DRM headaches. Time will tell whether these periodic check-ins will be any more visible.

Another reason is the network effect. Since Windows 7 is an operating system and not “just a piece of software”, its attraction lies not so much in its inherent values, but rather in the software users need that is available only for Windows. Two large categories of such software are games and in-house applications used by businesses.

To be clear, I personally dislike DRM and would prefer that Windows 7 didn’t have its new measures. Unfortunately, like the users I talked about, I will continue to use Windows 7. Despite the new features, I have yet to be inconvenienced enough to give up the software for which need Windows 7, and as long as that remains true, Microsoft is going to get away with more than just their new measures.

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