Microsoft announced today that it will stop remotely disabling versions of Vista that its registration servers deem pirated. If you’re not privy to this feature of Vista, here’s the lowdown: when your register your shiny new copy of Vista, Microsoft’s servers decide whether or not you are in fact registering a “genuine” copy, or a copy that has been hacked or modded for the purposes of illegal distribution. If it decides the latter, it limits some features of your machine quite severely, letting you login for only an hour at a time, disabling the OS’s eye-candy skin, called Aero, and giving you periodic (and vaguely ominous) error messages. Neither the initial feature nor its repeal are surprising, coming from the piracy McCarthyists in Redmond. What is interesting, however, is the bizarre language the MS brass use to discuss the feature and its (dis)abilities.
First of all, let’s talk about the term it uses for legitimate copies of Vista: genuine. It’s a curious choice of term primarily because it’s primarily a word you’d use to describe people, not software. The terms “legitimate” or “purchased” would have worked much better; “genuine,” in this case, is almost a malapropism when what is really meant is “authentic.” Taken in its duality, though (that is, to mean both “real” and “sincere,”) it sounds like a judgment full of sanctimony. In deciding whether a user’s copy of Vista is “genuine” or not, it sounds almost as if faraway servers are making a statement on the character and forthrightness of me, the flesh-and-blood PC owner. To decide whether a person is genuine is to appraise their general affect, demeanor, and patterns of behavior for trustworthiness — not to size up their PC.
Equally loaded are the terms Microsoft uses for copies of Vista it deems pirated. If the company’s servers decide you’re using an altered version of Vista, it puts your machine into a limited-functionality mode called “out of grace” mode. Out of grace? That’s a title reserved for the relationship between parent and errant teen; worker and judgmental boss; wife and dog-housed husband. Being rendered “out of grace” seems oddly passive-aggressive; the system refuses to assign blame or criminality, but is more than happy to frustrate your attempts to use your own computer, despite its apparent lack of surety that you are indeed a pirate. (If you think that Microsoft’s servers are always correct in administering its limited-functionality punishment, it’s not; in fact, it has screwed up big time in the past.)
Redmond’s rhetorical acrobatics become even more telling as they require the invention of words that don’t even exist. I’m talking about an even more severely reduced functionality mode that Microsoft can foist on your PC if it is really convinced you’re pirating Vista. That mode is called “non-genuine” mode.
If that sounds funny to you, it’s because “non-genuine” is very, very stupid phraseology. The word “genuine” already has an antonym: the word is “disingenuous.” You have probably heard of this word, or even used it, in everyday life. It means: insincere, deceptive, deceitful, duplicitous, etc. Interestingly, the customer relations gurus at Microsoft must have decided that “disingenuous” sounded either 1) too bombastic for their dumb consumers or 2) too accusatory of its dumb consumers for use its anti-piracy verbiage. (n.b.: Even if “genuine” were to be used loosely as a synonym for “real,” its antonym would then be “counterfeit,” a title that doesn’t really describe the status of copied or hacked software.) The substitute term that Microsoft has invented in order to weasel its way out of a linguistic corner sounds perhaps even more passive-aggressive than “out of grace” mode. That’s because it levies even harsher restrictions against the user, with perhaps even less of a tone of certainty regarding the user’s guilt. Not to mention that made-up phrases have a kind of Pee Wee’s Funhouse feel to them, which would be funnier if the feature wasn’t completely incapacitating your machine and subtly insulting you at the same time.
Industry folks (but not Microsoft reps themselves) call the reduced-functionality mode a “kill switch,” a term that is reminiscent of motor vehicles; motorcycles, lawnmowers and wood chippers have “kill switches.” It’s a term meant to describe a machine without a key ignition, a vehicle that you pull-start with one of those long strings, and choke of fuel to extinguish. For as complex in coding and security encryption as Vista’s “kill switch” is, it does make the operating system smack of the kind of simplicity that is also stupid and inconvenient. Sure, hand-pulling my Lawnboy to ignition means I’ll never lose the keys, but it’s also light-years behind the convenient way that I start up my Civic.
Killing the “kill switch” isn’t just a smart customer-relations move on the behalf of Vista’s makers, it’s also a step forward in usability, and a tacit acknowledgment that someday, Windows might have to succumb to the greater wants of technology — and become an open platform.