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Microsoft's 13 worst missteps of all time

Woody Leonhard | Jan. 15, 2013
DOS 4.0, Zune, and Windows 8 are but a few of the landmarks among 25 years of failures Redmond-style

Then came Windows 7, and all was right with the world once again. Proponents of the "good Windows, bad Windows" analysis claim that consumer versions of Windows run from great to lousy and back again. That's certainly a discernible trend from Windows 98 onward.

Microsoft misstep No. 9: Windows UltimateWindows Vista shipped in several versions, the most extravagant of which was Windows Vista Ultimate. Combining all of the features of Vista Business and Vista Home Premium, it also added the exclusive Windows Vista Ultimate Extras.

Ahem: "Windows Ultimate Extras are programs, services, and premium content for Windows Vista Ultimate. These features are available only to those who own a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate."

That's the promise. The reality was less impressive. Ultimate contained Windows DreamScene, a handful of videos to be used as desktop wallpaper; Hold 'Em Poker; three extra sound packs; and a puzzle game starring a robot -- and was later released free. The, uh, loyal Microsoft customers who spent an extra $100 for Vista Ultimate got burned big time.

Microsoft learned its lesson. Windows 7 Ultimate, under Sinofsky, only promised -- and delivered -- a combination of all the features in Win7 Home Premium and Professional. The loyal customers were never compensated.

Microsoft misstep No. 8: Windows Genuine Advantage

What does the then-richest software company in the world call its copy protection scheme? Why, "genuine advantage," of course.

In the halcyon days of Windows 95, 98, and 2000, anyone installing Windows had to provide a serial number. The serial numbers weren't checked against a master database, so the same serial number could be used to install multiple copies of Windows.

With the consumer version of Windows XP, Microsoft added a validation step, where a specific serial number was matched against a key constructed from serial numbers from PC components. The resulting combination is checked against a central database. Changing your motherboard or network card, or in some cases other combinations of hardware, triggered a revalidation. Fail the validation, and Windows wouldn't work -- you had to call Microsoft to beg for forgiveness.

Hardware manufacturers had a different process for activating machines before they shipped. Volume licensees were given serial numbers that worked in bulk.

Windows XP SP1 cut customers some slack: It added a three-day grace period, so you could continue to use your Windows PC for three days while trying to get it reactivated.

Then the offal hit the fan. Over the course of several years, in many confusing steps, Microsoft rolled out its Genuine Advantage program to all Windows XP and later versions.

The earliest versions of WGA included a program called WGA Notifications that runs whenever you log on and validates your Windows license. They also included an ActiveX control that validated your license every time you tried to download specific Microsoft products, including Internet Explorer 7 and Microsoft Security Essentials. You were also prohibited from using Windows Update to get security patches (although you could download Critical patches manually).WGA reached its nadir in Windows Vista, where failing the WGA check meant your machine was put into "reduced-functionality mode," where you could go onto the Web for an hour at a stretch, before Windows locks up.


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