Microsoft is offering a free online "test drive" of its Windows Vista OS in its latest effort to fight software piracy and counterfeiting.

Users can access the preview of Vista on a test drive site, said Cori Hartje, director of the genuine software initiative. The test drive sets up a virtual environment that shows a user what using Vista is like so they have a legitimate way of testing the software rather than going out and buying a counterfeit copy or pirating a genuine version, she said.

Although users won't be downloading all of Vista by going to the site, some software will be installed locally on their machines because the site needs to communicate with users that way, Hartje said. The test drive also will assess a user's hardware and evaluate what upgrades need to be made to run the OS.

Microsoft has offered customers a free preview of Office 2007 on its website.

Hartje spoke to PC Advisor to discuss progress in Microsoft's GSI (Genuine Software Initiative), an effort it launched in July 2005 to prevent pirated and counterfeited versions of Microsoft software being sold to users. The initiative has three parts - education, engineering and enforcement.

It is through the engineering part of the GSI that Microsoft launched its controversial Windows Genuine Advantage program, which evolved into a built-in Software Protection Platform in Windows Vista. The program will put a user's version of Vista into limited functionality mode - allowing them only to surf the web for an hour before rebooting - if they don't activate the product with a valid product activation key 30 days after installing Vista on a machine.

Although some have criticised Microsoft's antipiracy efforts as intrusive, Hartje defended the company's efforts to make sure customers purchase legitimate copies of Windows by citing a Yankee Group report that shows that using counterfeit software actually hurts companies.

One company in New York, outlined in the report - which was commissioned by Microsoft - purchased counterfeit copies of Office at a discount, but found the software cost them more than it was worth because of frequent crashes and interoperability issues that delayed shipping to some of the firm's customers, Hartje said.

Hartje acknowledged that some people who buy counterfeit Microsoft software are purchasing "high-quality" copies, and only later do they realise they have been duped. She showed off two copies of Windows XP that looked nearly identical, one was counterfeit and one was legitimate.

Customers can report these cases on Microsoft's antipiracy website, and so far there have been 56,000 reports, Hartje said. For some of these customers who have been deceived by clever packaging, Microsoft is offering a free, genuine version of the software they purchased. She did not have statistics on how many of those have been distributed, however.