Microsoft's plans for XP
The recent news about the stealth Windows updates (as summarized by The Register) got me to thinking about the last time Microsoft was performing undisclosed updates. In early 2006, Microsoft pushed out updates for Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) without giving people a change to deny them. Some people found that these updates included a "kill-switch" for disabling computers that did not pass the WGA test, whether because the OS was truly pirated or because the test was faulty. At the time I remember thinking that if someone had AutoUpdates turned off it would be impossible for Microsoft to get this kill switch onto the computer.
Microsoft was obviously thinking the same thing. Last fall they rolled out SP2, which has slowly made its way onto most XP installs. Now we find out that release had an advantage for Microsoft built in. How do you get updates to a computer that has updates turned off? Pick a program that "needs" updated whether people want it or not, and give it the ability to bypass the Windows Update settings. What better program to have this capability than the updater itself? With Microsoft's history of backward compatibility, it is no surprise that updates to their update system will break compatibility with older update tools. Thus we now have updates with no need to ask permission.
It is no great leap of logic to decide that WGA is part of the update system. The whole idea is to block updates for pirated installs. Because of this, if Microsoft decides to trigger "kill-switches" for computers that have SP2 installed, they only need to update WGA as part of a new Updater update.
Now here is the insidious part of the plan. Before much longer XP will reach end-of-life, and Microsoft will want everybody to upgrade to Vista for their own good and security (or at least for the good of Microsoft's pocketbook). If past history is any indication, many people will still think XP is good enough for many years to come, and will not be persuaded to upgrade as long as it works (or until they need to reinstall and they can't activate XP any more). So what can Microsoft do ensure that people make the move? The handy Updater will get updated one last time, this time with a "kill switch" or a crippler for XP. Suddenly people will find that their perfectly good computer is worthless, and their only options are: buy a new computer with Vista (because their computer is probably to old to run Vista), buy a Mac, or upgrade to Linux.
Oops! Did Microsoft think about that last part? I don't know. I don't even know that they have any of this in mind, but I do know from watching Microsoft for many years now that I trust them almost as far as I trust a Democrat politician (that's for all of you who have to throw a jab at George W. Bush in an otherwise-unrelated technical article). Any way, if such a thing happens, I hope we are ready to help people out of their Microsoft misery into the wonderful world of Linux we already enjoy.
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