Office 2007 'Stun Switch' Nothing New

There doesn't seem to be as much confusion over what this thing does as over what to call it: With a name that sounds straight out of "1984," what exactly is Reduced Functionality Mode (RFM) in Office 2007?

This week, Microsoft is repeating statements made over the past seven years that RFM -- which, as BetaNews reported last month, is now a mandatory feature of Office -- is nothing other than a mechanism to prevent users who won't let the company verify the product's authenticity, from doing more than testing how it works.

Meanwhile, reporters on Monday characterized Microsoft's most recent implementation of RFM as an "off switch" or a "kill switch," leaving users to speculate about the feasibility of more sinister purposes, though without much evidence to support it.

As one spokesperson explained to BetaNews Monday evening, Office 2007 retains a feature that has been present in the suite since Office XP in 2002, and which was first tested in limited release editions of Office 2000 in 1999.

This activation feature counts the number of times a user launches one of the Office applications, and if it reaches a certain number and the user continues to decline to activate the product (to signal its installation through the Internet or a phone call), it drops Office down to Reduced Functionality Mode.

Veteran Windows software tester Paul Thurrott first discovered RFM in a preview version of Office 10, which later became Office XP. As Thurrott noted then, the activation feature would drop the Office 10 beta to RFM after 20 skipped activation requests. The released edition of Office XP increased that number to 50; with Office 2007, that number has been reduced to 25.

As reporters discovered yesterday, a Microsoft Knowledgebase article updated just last week described RFM for Office 2007 as disabling a user's ability to create new documents, edit existing documents or to save documents edited within the suite, though the user can open existing documents and print them. Reports have stated this updated document is evidence that Microsoft, contrary to prior statements, is building a "kill switch" into Office, and perhaps into Windows Vista as well.

Microsoft yesterday afternoon rejected the characterization of RFM as a "kill switch," citing that RFM does not completely disable Office. But reporters have counter-argued, if you can't save and you can't edit, that's as good as killing it, isn't it? The ensuing argument is starting to take on the characteristics of Monty Python's classic "Dead Parrot Sketch." Is Office dead, or is it just resting?

One monkey wrench in the dead parrot argument is the fact that RFM has been resting in Office for several years. Much of the language from the updated knowledgebase article was first used in an earlier Knowledgebase article dated February 10, 2002. Though frequent revisions to the Knowledgebase may theoretically have enabled history to have been corrected, this earlier Microsoft Word format document advised Outlook 2002 users about RFM's existence, and this independent analysis of Office XP written during the time of Office XP's release, shows where RFM was also discovered to have been capable of disabling the suite, exactly the way last week's Knowledgebase article describes, except after 50 skips instead of 25.

When the whole "kill switch" debate began, it centered around the question of whether activation would render Office completely non-functional, or perhaps even disable parts of Windows. Now that we're talking about turning down the number of activation skips from 50 to 25, it would seem safe to perhaps stand down from red alert, and start debating the efficacy of the "stun switch."

One problem, Microsoft's spokesperson told us Monday evening, is that reporters may be confusing product activation with product validation, the latter process taking place through the aid of a feature called Genuine Advantage. While some have pointed out in the past that Microsoft may be working to merge the two features together at some point, potentially endowing Office with the future capability of reducing functionality for Windows if activation is declined, others seem to be under the impression that this has already happened. It hasn't, BetaNews was told, and it might not happen for quite some time, if at all.

"Product Activation technology is not new to Microsoft Office, which has had Product Activation since Microsoft Office 2000 SR1," the spokesperson told us. "It is important to note the distinction between activation and validation. Failure to validate your copy of the 2007 Office system as being genuine does not result in moving to reduced functionality mode (RFM) or de-featuring the product. However, if the product is not activated, it will go to RFM after starting up a Microsoft Office application 25 times."

If users want to add a feature to their already installed Office 2007 -- for instance, adding templates to the Excel library -- a feature called Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) first verifies whether or not the installed Office is indeed licensed, before allowing the download to proceed.

This is the validation feature with which testers continue to have problems. While Microsoft insisted yesterday to BetaNews that OGA does not disable any features of Office or Windows, and that it only blocks the download from proceeding if the product is deemed not genuine, testers in the field are noticing what appears to be detrimental effects on the part of OGA perhaps working in tandem with Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA).

As veteran Excel author and expert John Walkenbach noted last month, the OGA installed with his beta copy of Excel 2007 sporadically disbelieves that he has genuine Microsoft software on his computer. However, since OGA is apparently capable of testing more than one product, it can refuse to let him download an upgrade to his Excel beta, if it believes his copy of Excel 2003 is invalid.

Walkenbach is in the business of crafting tremendously functional add-ins for Excel, though Microsoft has insisted in the past that such add-ins could not possibly alter the chemistry of installed software to the degree that validation would deem it non-genuine.

Reports yesterday cited these stories from the field of testers having trouble with validation as evidence that Microsoft is crafting new software-disabling features in its activation system. We related some of these stories to our Microsoft spokesperson yesterday, who repeated -- perhaps already past the blue-in-the-face stage -- that validation and activation are not the same system.

Activation, the spokesperson said, is a "one-time process." Once activation is completed, it will not "phone home" to Microsoft in the future, it will not force businesses and individuals to re-activate later on, or prior to some future upgrade or download or patch, nor has the spokesperson been made aware of any plans, we were told, for activation to ever do so. The problems which testers were having with validation, we were told, may have to do with a "deeper problem" with the software, perhaps with the beta of the application itself rather than with validation.

The lack of new revelations about activation, however, may not end the argument, though it may yet somehow be prolonged. While significant problems with validation may persist, after seven years, there remains no evidence of a sinister motive behind the activation process. And that's what I call a dead parrot.

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