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 users 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.Though users won\u2019t 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\u2019s hardware and evaluate what upgrades need to be made to run the OS.Microsoft also has offered customers a free preview of Office 2007 on its website.Hartje was in New York on Friday to discuss progress in Microsoft\u2019s Genuine Software Initiative (GSI), an effort it launched in July 2005 to prevent the pirated and counterfeited versions of Microsoft software to be 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\u2019s version of Vista into limited functionality mode\u2014allowing users to surf the Web for only an hour before rebooting\u2014if they don\u2019t activate the product with a valid product-activation key 30 days after installing Vista on a machine.Though some have criticized Microsoft\u2019s antipiracy efforts as intrusive, Hartje defended the company\u2019s efforts to make sure customers purchase legitimate copies of Windows by citing a Yankee Group report made public Monday that shows that using counterfeit software actually hurts companies.One company in Queens, N.Y., outlined in the report\u2014which was commissioned by Microsoft\u2014purchased counterfeit copies of Office at a discount, but found the software cost\u00a0it more than it was worth because of frequent crashes and interoperability issues that delayed shipping to some of the firm\u2019s customers, Hartje said.Hartje acknowledged that some people who buy counterfeit Microsoft software are purchasing "high-quality" copies, and only later do they realize they have been duped. She showed two copies of Windows XP that looked nearly identical, though one was counterfeit and one was legitimate.Customers can report these cases on Microsoft\u2019s 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.-Elizabeth Montalbano, IDG News Service (New York Bureau)Related Links:\n\nMicrosoft Pushes Premium Versions of Windows Vista\n\nMicrosoft Vista, XP, 2000 Exploit for Sale\n\nMicrosoft Windows Vista: The OS Has LandedCheck out our CIO News Alerts and Tech Informer pages for more updated news coverage.