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Why anti-piracy lockdowns doth make pirates of us all...

In Microsoft's vision, the PCs of the future are easier to use, harder to break, and their software is difficult (preferably impossible) to pirate. One of the problems with this, from the user's point of view, is that these PCs will tend to be much more constrained environments, achieving Microsoft's notion of simple (Windows) computing, but sabotaging the techie's desire to fiddle around with the stuff and break it.

But only slightly and briefly, apparently. A couple of days ago I asked for creative suggestions as to how you could get Win98 onto a legacy-free PC, with USB-only connectors, that wouldn't boot from a floppy - and my, what an ingenious bunch you are. I do actually have such a PC, and while fiddling with it over the weekend (the stores were shut, so some lateral thinking was required) I started wondering about the likely consequences of such PCs becoming the standard. Initially, these seem highly favourable to Microsoft.

First of all, the hardware and operating system work even more like a single integrated unit than previously, if only because most non technical users (which means most users) won't have the means or the ability to rip them apart. The most recent version of the PC2001 spec, which is currently intended to define the hardware that runs Whistler, specifies that there should be no reliance on DOS "for any software components provided with the system," and you'll note that this is reflected in Microsoft's attempt to switch to a CD-based recovery system, rather than including boot floppies.

The company has apparently relented on this for the moment, but unless the PC2001 text changes for the final version, boot floppies are doomed again from second half next year. This isn't necessarily wildly relevant anyway though, because the legacy free systems won't necessarily boot from a floppy, the recovery process must be independent of floppies, and machines have to include the ability for the floppy to be remotely disabled by that nice network manager. PC2001 doesn't outlaw floppies entirely, and still allows you to boot from them, but your boss will quite possibly insist on the drive being switched off, the action is moving into other I/O territory, and it's goodbye floppies at some point over the next few years.

This locks down the recovery CD procedure rather better, from an anti-piracy perspective. You can - as with Windows 2000 - make one grudging backup, after which the backup procedure disables itself, and if you screw up your machine totally, the procedure is as follows. The machine will ship with one of those bios-locked recovery CDs that will only run on that class of machine, and that will put the machine back into the state it was in when you first switched it on. You can't get the software off the machine to sell it (some Microsoft licence agreements say you can only sell the software along with the machine anyway), and you can't readily produce a simple, easily restorable backup of your preferred configuration to squirt back onto the machine.

That's an annoyance for the ordinary consumer, and a major expense and inconvenience for big companies who want to install their own standard configurations. They can do this over the network with the likes of Norton Ghost, but as we pointed out recently (MS reimaging sting will cost business $11bn - Gartner) Microsoft has been trying to charge them right royally for doing so. So that's another exit being closed off in the name of anti-piracy.

The punters strike back

But the problem for Microsoft is that whenever a roadblock is erected, the pesky users will just find a way (more likely several different ways) around it. The techniques used to circumvent all of the security, anti-piracy and ease of use features are at the moment largely the preserve of more experienced users, but the harder things get for the majority, the more likely these techniques are to become widespread. And of course the dumb users' scruples (assuming they have any) will crumble when they're faced with the alternative of days of banging their head against the box, or just buying a pirate copy of Windows Whatever you can boot from a CD. Anti-piracy measures stimulate piracy, I reckon - the harder the software companies make it, the more the users reckon the punks deserve it.

The most common suggestion I got for how you get Win98 onto the box was of course to burn a bootable CD, boot from that then run Win98 setup. This is legal, and it's my own fault I didn't have a CD writer, failed to mention this, and therefore got about 100 email variations on the theme. But significantly, many contributors went further, with the objective of ease of use appropriately enough outweighing breach of the licence. You've bought a copy of full Win98, morally you ought to be able to just boot from it and install the OS, so OK, you burn a bootable CD, copy the files onto it and away you go.

You have of course then developed the technique for pirating full copies of Windows, and it's just a short step from that to giving copies away to your friends, or selling them. It's a slightly larger step to file off the registration so the pirate copies are less traceable. One of our contributors suggested this as a mechanism for allowing you to use legitimately purchased Windows licences, but you can see how what seems morally right blurs into licence breach, and then onto piracy. It's a hell of a lot easier for you, as a network manager, to have disks that install the way you want them to without whining about licences you know you've bought anyway, but it screws Microsoft's anti-piracy measures, and again, the restrictions do seem to be making piracy more likely.

The hooky stuff's better anyway

Part of my problem was that I had a retail Win98 SE CD that wasn't bootable. It appears OEM copies are (although they're likely for the chop soon), and so are WinME CDs, so one of you suggested I start a WinME install and then substitute Win98. Possible, but the notion of paying three licence fees to MS in order to install one OS is boggling.

Other contributors pointed out that pirate copies of Windows CDs are generally bootable, so far handier than the real retail thing. My supplier was the Microsoft UK Press Office, which should maybe go figure on this one, and upgrade its product line. More contributors still pointed me at warez sites that were (they told me, I didn't look, honest) Alladin's Caves of wondrous bootable disk images. This is not because Register readers are a bunch of dodgy pirates, it's because people are responding to the restrictions by moving into the grey zone, and once you're over the line Microsoft defined, it's maybe tricky to know for sure where the line is/should be.

Screw it, just shove Linux onto it

I thought of this one, and it was our second most popular solution. As Microsoft Windows bootable CDs that will get you at least a Dos prompt are clearly a controlled substance, and it was Sunday, what about that bootable Red Hat 6.0 CD you took off the cover of Linux Answers a couple of months ago, meaning to do something about it?

That worked for a bit, but the hardware I was using had an Intel 810E FlexATX board in it, and there are/were Linux driver issues with this. But a quick scan of Red Hat 7.0 features suggests that this ought to run on the machine, so it went onto the shopping list. But even without an install, some readers inform me, you can boot Linux from the CD, interrupt and run the Linux Console to FDISK your way around the machine then install whatever you like. Doing this with my cover disk got me some weird (newbie mode ON) command prompt where I couldn't even figure out how to change directories, but I get the general drift, and I'll try that one again later.

More morals though. Here we have Linux sliding neatly into the position of a mechanism for running multiple operating systems on a machine designed (largely by Microsoft) to run one Microsoft operating system. It's doing so in my case because the old Dos methods weren't available, because it was free, and because there was nothing else to do at the time. If operating systems that can install easily, and that can run alongside Windows, come free on the covers of magazines, and they can allow users to break free of some of the restrictions of Windows, then surely people are going to start shoving them in the drive and giving it a try.

And yes, as many of you said, once you've shoved Linux onto it, why bother putting Windows back too? I thought of this too, and I might have left it like that if Red Hat 6.0 installed properly, and maybe I'll do it so long as 7.0 does a clean install. A cool looking legacy free PC running Linux? Not quite what Microsoft intended, but as I keep saying, it's really Microsoft's fault I started off in this direction in the first place.

An honourable mention to all of those readers who recommended Partition Magic, and a tactful silence to the people who told me to boot from a floppy. I told you this wasn't an option, do try to keep up. My problem here was that I had Partition Magic 5.0, which can only handle Win2k if you boot from floppies, and it was Sunday, right? Partition Magic 6.0 was added to the order.

The saga continues

So today, I'm all tooled up. I still haven't straightened out the machine, but I've got all the kit, which as a side effect turns me into a potential purveyor of strangely cheap white CDs, whereas previously I didn't (another moral for you there). Anyway, given that Win2k doesn't run decent games, and given that the kids are going to need a Win98 setup that does by Christmas Day, this is going to happen.

For my lab kit I have one copy of Win98, non-bootable, bootable copies of Red Hat 6.0, 6.1, 6.2 and 7.0 (overkill, I know, but they were lying around the office), one copy of Partition Magic 6.0, one CD writer, and more blank CDs than I know what to do with (oops). And then there's the CD of Whistler beta 1, which is how I really got into this in the first place. Didn't I mention that before? Oh well. Is this fun or what? Tune in for the next bulletin - next week, I hope.

* Attention, Microsoft anti-piracy squad. I know I've got all the gear I need to steal your stuff, but it's legal, OK? The gear that is, not stealing your stuff. I know that's illegal, and the moral position is between you and God. I've got more legal licences for MS software than I know what to do with (oops, again) and I have no intention of doing anything which is in breach of your many, varied and colourfully-worded licence agreements. Anyway your press people bike me round operating systems on demand, for free. So don't raid me. But I might try that gag about hacking the licence number, which my informant claims is totally legal (for personal use) and has the interesting side-effect of not displaying the licence agreement for you to agree with. So - he says - you can install legal software without bothering to agree to the licence terms. Can of worms, and another oops, I fear... ®

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