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War on Error

John E Dunn

Comet has some explaining to do but so does Microsoft

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Recovery discs? What recovery discs?

The irony of Microsoft launching a legal action over illegal operating system recovery disks against UK retail chain Comet in the very week it announced a feature in Windows 8 that will render them largely obsolete deserves special mention.

The gist of the case is that in 2008 and 2009 94,000 PC buyers in the UK were allegedly duped into paying £14.99 (about $23) for Windows XP and Vista recovery discs from Comet which could easily be created using software supplied with any computer.

Quite what Comet thought it was doing (apart from making money) is hard to fathom, but the legals already reckon it is in for a court drubbing.

“The basic position is that Microsoft clearly owns the copyright to the software and so anyone reproducing the software on a disc is infringing,” said a note sent to journalists by Iain Connor of law firm Pinsent Mason.

Microsoft has since poured more scorn on Comet with the following statement.

"Not only was the recovery software already provided on the hard drive by the computer manufacturer but, if the customer so desired, a recovery disc could also have been obtained by the customer from the PC manufacturer for free or a minimal amount. Illegally replicating software and then selling it is counterfeiting."

Beyond the narrow argument over licensing and Comet’s alleged sales tactics, Microsoft should ponder the larger questions raised by the case, such as why on earth did 94,000 PC users think they should be buying OS recovery discs in the first place? And which other well-known UK stores might have sold discs too?

Since the earliest days of Windows users have struggled with the whole process of PC recovery, which could be carried out using a set of setup CDs supplied with every new PC. As these were phased out - Windows had bloated to take up many DVDs - vendors took to putting the OS image on a separate partition on the computer. This was supposed to be backed up on to DVDs by the user.

Microsoft supplied a built-in utility to do this from Vista SP1 onwards in 2008, but it’s fair to say that the average user remained baffled by the whole process. Even those willing to spend the hours needed to perform the task would still face the task of updating the machine over the Internet to reflect service packs and multiple updates unless they invested in a dedicated imaging utility.

This complexity should have been addressed by Microsoft years ago, either by making it clearer that they offer updated images of operating systems for a nominal fee to licensed users, or simply building better technology into Windows.

We learn this week that Windows 8 will come with precisely that, namely reset and refresh features that will simply and quickly (depending on the scenario) reinstate the whole OS, if necessary using a USB stick for non-booting machines.

The new technology doesn’t entirely rule out backup disc sets (this will presumably be included as an option), but it does at least give the user somewhere to go that doesn’t involve a trip to computer stores such as Comet.

Microsoft had a hand in creating the complexity that led to user confusion and Comet probably thought (or will argue) that it was stepping in where Microsoft was unwilling to help. It might or might not have acted in good faith but users should have received more support from the company that has made tens of billions from Windows.

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