A genuine disadvantage

With Thursday’s release of Boot Camp 1.3 beta, I spent a bit of time updating the Windows setup on both the Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro. During the update, I also remembered that the MacBook Pro had recently started having wireless connection issues when booted into Windows: it could see, but not join, my wireless network, which is protected by WPA2. I had tried (halfheartedly) to fix the problem a few times, but since I don’t often connect to the net when booted into Windows (as I’m either testing an OS X-related hint or playing a game!), it wasn’t at the top of the priority list. But since I was working on the machine anyway, I decided to put a bit more effort into troubleshooting.

A quick Google search ( “boot camp” wpa2 help ) on my Mac Pro (as the laptop is only connected to the net via wireless) came up with this Apple article as the top hit. Lo and behold, it described my exact setup and problem: Windows XP SP2, an AirPort Extreme base station, WPA2 protection, and a failure to connect to the base station. The Apple article includes a link to Microsoft’s Wireless Client Update for Windows XP with Service Pack 2, which supposedly fixes the problem. Excellent, I thought, almost there!

On the Mac Pro, I clicked Microsoft’s Download the Wireless Client Update package now link, thinking I was nearly done—just download the updater, copy it to a USB stick, and then install it on my Windows-booted MacBook Pro. When I clicked the link, though, I was faced with this quandary:

For those not familiar with it, Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) is (in my opinion at least) an overly onerous anti-piracy tool built into Windows XP SP2 and Windows Vista. Before you can install most updates, Microsoft installs and runs a program that confirms you’re not using a pirated copy of Windows. This policy very much assumes that everyone is a thief, and makes you prove your innocence before you’re allowed to download updates. The only exception Microsoft makes to this policy is for security updates: even pirated versions of Windows can install security updates.

In the Apple world, downloading updates on one machine to install on another is simple—either via Apple’s own Web site, or from within the Software Update tool, which has an option to save the updates locally. Apple assumes its users are using legitimate purchased copies of OS X, and (as far as I know) there are absolutely no checks of serial numbers at any time. You can, in fact, download Mac software updates on a Windows or Linux machine if you wish (via the browser). But on my Windows-booted MBP, it seemed I was stuck in a classic Catch-22: I needed the wireless patch to get online, but I would only be able to get the patch if I was already online from the very machine I needed to fix, so I could prove my copy of Windows XP SP2 was legitimate (which it is). What to do??

For me, thankfully, there was a relatively simple solution: use the Ethernet port on the MacBook Pro to get on the network. Of course, this meant digging out an Ethernet cable, crawling under the desk to connect the laptop to the router, and then putting everything away again when I was done updating. But what if my Ethernet port were damaged? Or what if I had a desktop machine that I intentionally kept off the Internet? Or a desktop machine whose problem was that it couldn’t connect to the net, and which had only an Ethernet card installed?

In those cases, the only solution is to have access to another (genuine) Windows machine that can get online—not an OS X or Linux system, of course, as they won’t be able to pass the WGA test. Using the functional machine, you would (after passing the Windows Genuine Advantage test) then be able to download the patch you need, put it on a USB stick, and transfer it to the broken machine.

Now, how does this help prevent Windows piracy? Not in any meaningful way that I can see, especially when you consider that you can get online from a genuine Windows machine in many places—an Internet café, the public library, etc. So sitting at home with your pirated copy of Windows, you only need to use a legitimate machine to download the patch. A bit of an inconvenience, to be sure, but hardly enough to prevent a dedicated pirate from patching their system. (Apparently it’s relatively simple to get around the WGA testing, but I’ve never tried. Even more evidence, though, that this system doesn’t do much at all to discourage the serious pirates.)

This little incident is another reminder of how nice it is to live in the Mac world every day, where the users are still generally presumed innocent—and I’m really hoping this approach continues with the release of OS X 10.5 this fall.

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