An anti-piracy tactic by Microsoft that turns some computer users' screens black is setting off a wave of unexpected indignation among Chinese consumers, posing renewed problems for the software maker in the huge China market.
In the days since Microsoft deployed an updated anti-piracy tool here, some Chinese have fumed about what they see as an invasion of privacy. Users of legitimate software have been turning their own screens black in protest. One authorised user complained to the police.
"It's a crime," said Beijing lawyer Dong Zhengwei, who filed a complaint against Microsoft with the Public Security Ministry. The ministry hasn't responded.
"The black-screen plan implies that Microsoft can hack all its users, not just the pirates," Dong said. "That's not fair."
Microsoft defended its actions, saying the company complies with Chinese law. It issued a statement promising its anti-piracy campaign would not be used to collect personal information. It is also offering steep discounts on some software to give consumers an affordable legal alternative.
At issue is a software feature that searches for pirated copies of Windows and is part of the XP operating system and Vista. In conducting the search, the tool logs certain information about the personal computer and then notifies the user if it detects illegal copies or counterfeits.
While the tool has been in use for several years, the update released by the internet is more intrusive when it detects a fake copy of XP: it turns the PC's desktop black, replacing the user's background image. A piracy warning appears in the corner of the screen. Though the user can override the blackout, it reappears every 60 minutes.
In all other ways, the blacked-out computer still works. Users not yet affected can avoid getting hit by disabling Windows' automatic update feature, though they might miss security updates. For those already hit, software patches to avoid the black screen are already circulating online.
But Chinese computer users' outrage points to continuing problems for the world's largest software maker in what is projected to become the world's biggest computer market.
While Chinese know their internet is monitored and censored, that rarely creates such a stir. Rather the reaction against Microsoft's Big Brother-esque tactics show Chinese consumers' persisting belief that there's little wrong with buying cut-rate pirated goods.
Knockoff software and electronics are rampant in China. Brand-name computers are sold by retailers with pirated software bundled in, helping to keep prices low. More than 80 per cent of personal computer software in China last year was pirated, according to the U.S.-based Business Software Alliance. One in five Chinese consumers does not know they're using pirated software, Microsoft said in a statement.
In an upstairs corner of a Cybermart electronics emporium in downtown Shanghai, saleswoman Jin Li stood in a pink smock under a large Microsoft sign, the shop's counters cluttered with computer parts, mobile phone trinkets and imitation iPods. The shop isn't a licensed Microsoft seller.
"We just wanted to put a brand name up there," Jin said, nodding at the sign.
Customers, she said, have a main complaint about Windows XP. "The real thing is definitely too expensive. They can download it or buy it pirated for 10 yuan," or less than $2, she said. "The real thing is hundreds of yuan. What do you think?"
That easy availability threatens Microsoft's potential profits.
Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer told a business forum last month that China will surpass the United States as the largest consumer market for personal computers within two years. But software piracy in China has undercut sales of the real thing, keeping Microsoft from meeting revenue growth targets, according to Chief Financial Officer Chris Liddell.
The focus on the Chinese consumer has grown with the China market. For years, Microsoft aimed its anti-piracy campaigns at businesses, the government and other large customers. Two years ago, the Redmond, Washington-based company began signing deals with computer makers both inside and outside China to install genuine versions of its software before PCs reach the stores.
Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China, a Beijing tech consulting firm, said the updated Genuine Advantage push is likely an attempt to use shame to target business customers and professionals who do not want to be seen using a fake product.
"There's a little bit of a Big Brother effect," said Clark. "As for the youth, Microsoft probably couldn't win them over in any case."
The move has only increased bitter feelings toward a company perceived by many to charge too much.
"There's absolutely no need for such a monster cash cow like Microsoft to take this obviously dramatic step and make itself the No. 1 enemy of most Chinese PC users," said Steven Lin, a spokesman for the video sharing website Youku.com, in an email. "Business/government users are their primary income source in China, how much more can they squeeze from ordinary users who can make on average $500 (3,400 yuan) per month? They're crazy!"
So far, the Chinese government has made no comment, though the website of People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, allowed plenty of room for Chinese to vent.
As of Thursday, almost 80 per cent of more than 10,000 people responding to a poll on the site said Microsoft should solve the piracy issue by further lowering its prices.
Still, with piracy rampant across the country, lower prices might not be enough.
As the day of the black-screen update loomed in China, a poll taken by the popular Tencent QQ instant messaging system showed 84 per cent of the more than 90,000 respondents said they were using pirated software - and 60 per cent said they'd keep doing so.
"Actually, I'll still use pirated software," said 24-year-old Shanghai advertising salesman Tai Chenggong, whose screen turned black this week after downloading a fake copy of Windows for free. "It still works, no problem."