Product Manager Decision Time: Tell Users “Game Over”?

Microsoft Distributed A Patch To Catch Users Of Illegal Copies Of Windows
Microsoft Distributed A Patch To Catch Users Of Illegal Copies Of Windows

So here’s a little story that caught my attention in the Wall Street Journal the other day. The article was entitled “Microsoft Tries Blackening Screens To Fight Software Piracy In China”. The gist of the article went on to say that Microsoft had distributed a Windows XP patch to users who have elected to get automatic updates over the Internet that turns their backgrounds black and then nags them to switch to a legitimate copy of Windows. What do you think about this tactic – a sound business move or a product management disaster?

Perhaps a few more details on this update are in order. The update does not prevent users from using their PCs. You can change your computer’s background from the black setting to whatever you want (like a photo); however, every 60 minutes it will revert back to black. Additionally, messages are posted every so often to the screen that warn the user about using counterfeit software products.

In China, a number of potentially unsuspecting folks are getting zapped by this warning. People who may have purchased a computer that was built by someone who used a counterfeit copy of Windows XP are now being notified that their computers are running counterfeit copies of Windows. Microsoft has done two things to minimize the fallout from all of this. They’ve lowered the cost of a legit copy of Windows XP to $30 and they will send people a free copy of Windows XP if they send them the physical copy of the counterfeit copy that they were using.

From a product manager’s point-of-view, I can understand both sides of this story. Microsoft has a massive problem with counterfeiting. Since they have the most popular operating system out there, everyone wants to have a copy of it. However, at the same point in time, Microsoft generates a great deal of money from other vendors because there are so many copies of its operating system out there. The more people who use Windows, the more valuable Microsoft training and documentation becomes to others. All that being said, Microsoft is working on the next version of Windows, Windows 7, and it’s sure to be an instant hit the day that it is released simply because so many people are already using Windows.

Every product manager wants their product to be a success. However, we also want our company to get paid for the product otherwise the company may not realize just how successful our product has been. If we give away demo or free copies, it’s very tempting to add some sort of “kill switch” that can or will disable the product at some point in the future in order to motivate the customer to go out and purchase the real product. The challenge that we have here, is that we can’t really control what the customer is going to be doing with our product when this happens. I’m going to guess that more often than not, our product will stop working at just about the worst time imaginable. No matter how much the customer likes our product, they are going to be angry with us because we inconvenienced them.

Additionally, no security solution is going to be perfect. We’re going to end up cutting off some legitimate users. Can you imagine how angry they are going to be? Microsoft has not released any statistics; however, you know that they must have gotten hundreds of complaints from legitimate users who’s computers started incorrectly telling them that they were using counterfeit copies of Windows XP.

When dealing with a software product, it’s always been my feeling that once the product is out there it would be a fool’s quest to try to hunt down and stop any counterfeit copies that might have found their way in to use. Instead, I’ve always felt that making each and every user WANT to be a legitimate user was the way to go. What this meant is that I couldn’t just launch a software product, have people purchase it, and then forget about them. Instead, I needed to make the purchase of the product just the start of the relationship. It was my job as a product manager to make my customers want to have a closer relationship with my company.

The real trick to being a successful product manager is to create an ecosystem that your customers want to belong to. What this system consists of will be different for each product; however, some common components may include a user group community and the ongoing discussions that occur there, access to developers / technical experts who can answer even the most detailed questions, access to planned new release schedules and a description of enhancements / new features, invitations to user gatherings, etc.

Ultimately, I think that Microsoft has gotten it wrong again. If they made owning a legitimate version of Windows the passkey into a world of access to privileged information and exceptional customer service, then almost everyone would insist on having a non-counterfeit copy. Having your customers actively avoid counterfit copies and actually requesting legit copies is the way to go.

What do you think would be Microsoft’s best move to reduce piracy of their products? Do you agree with using the patch to hassle people who may be using counterfeit copies? Can you think of a better way to get these folks to buy a legit copy? Should Microsoft even bother going after them? Leave a comment and let me know what you are thinking.