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Microsoft on Wednesday toughened its stance against software piracy as it disclosed that it will hobble PCs that it suspects of running pirated copies of its forthcoming Windows Vista operating system.

Users running unauthorised software will immediately lose some of the features of the new operating system and will eventually be able to use the machines only to browse the internet, the company said.

While the fresh attack on piracy was generally applauded by software analysts, some warned that it could lead to bad publicity if Microsoft mistakenly cracks down on genuine customers because of glitches in its own software validation process.

“There will be some issues with it”, since even a very low error rate could affect a large number of PC users given the large numbers involved, said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. However, he added that Microsoft appeared to have struck a good balance between taking a stronger line to protect its software and not antagonising its users.

Piracy has loomed as a larger problem for Microsoft as it has looked increasingly to emerging market countries for future growth. Piracy has also become big business as perpetrators have become more sophisticated. It has become a bigger threat to PC users as pirates have used the unauthorised software as a way to insert extra software, such as keystroke logging technology, on to PCs, said Mr Cherry.

Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft’s anti-piracy initiative, said any adverse publicity that Microsoft attracted over an earlier software validation process tied to its Windows XP did not point to future problems with Vista, since the new anti-piracy system was built on an entirely new technology.

The latest attack on piracy in part reflects the growing problem from stolen activation keys, which are then given to unsuspecting customers who think they are buying genuine software.

Many of these keys were originally issued to large companies or other big customers. To combat this problem, Microsoft said users of suspect software would be given 30 days to get proper authorisation or face losing much of the functionality of their machines. It added that it would never fully disable any user’s PC.

The attack on piracy will mean companies that buy volume licences from Microsoft will have to follow additional procedures when upgrading to Vista, said Ms Hartje. The company did not expect this to slow adoption of the software.

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