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By Melanie Lee
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - I confess, my copy of Windows 7 Ultimate, the latest version of Microsoft's Windows franchise, was just that: a copy.
I picked it up at a shop in a subway station near my house for 20 yuan, or less than $3 -- about the price of a bowl of soupy pork noodles available across Shanghai.
I bought it this week on a story assignment that sent me into the city's notorious Xinyang market, where boxes of the software were tucked among racks of fake Ralph Polo T-shirts and Gucci bags, even though its official launch was a week away.
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One shopkeeper, a petite woman in her 30s, was clearly impressed by my well-heeled attire and assumed I was a seasoned buyer of pirated wares rampant throughout China.
"If you buy 10 you get it cheaper," she said in broken English.
"If you buy Microsoft Office 2010, you also get cheaper. I can wholesale you. How many you want?," she prodded, eager to unload stacks of the CDs wrapped in white non-descript cases.
In a sign of how far China has come since its Communist Iron Rice Bowl days, there was even the promise of customer satisfaction: "The installation instructions are in English and if it's not working you can bring it back to change," she said.
HALFWAY THERE
I left with my box containing one Windows 7 disk, the first part of my task completed.
Now came the more daunting part.
Many have warned me that installing pirated versions of Windows on a computer is a bit like playing Russian Roulette with your hard drive. But I had to see this mission through, and enlisted a colleague's help to install it on a laptop.
The results were quite impressive, at least initially.
Windows 7's interface is very fresh. Instead of little square boxes on the task bar at the bottom of the screen, there are icons. Keeping track of multiple browser windows is no problem as one click of the Internet Explorer icon lets you see all the browsers you have open.
It also allows you to drag interactive applets or widgets onto your desktop, and the boot-up time seemed faster than for the Windows Vista I have on my laptop at home.
But, after a reboot, the laptop mysteriously crashed, with a black screen prompting: "Bootmgr is missing."
Uh-oh.
Thankfully, my colleague had the genuine Windows XP on hand and my rendezvous with piracy was over.
STAMPING OUT THE PIRATES
The U.S. and Europe are critical of piracy of software and other products, but I have to confess I have my own issues with product makers who make it tough to buy the real deal in China.
When I first landed in Shanghai, I found real software incredibly hard to find. Pirated copies, on the other hand, were everywhere. So were pirated versions of just about everything else, from DVDs to three different kinds of fake Apple iPhones -- small ones, ones with radios, and dual-SIM card ones.
But in my four months in Shanghai, I've also come to appreciate the main things that real products offer that the pirates don't: quality and dependability.
Watching Neil Blomkamp's "District 9" movie on a bootleg DVD was an awful experience. The sound was muffled, and the subtitles were clearly from a totally different movie.
As income levels rise and prices fall, I'm guessing the Chinese, an enterprising and hardworking lot, will find more reason to buy real products and fewer reasons to buy rip-offs.
I'm encouraged that some Chinese now pay Western prices at the cinema, even though the numbers at screenings I've attended are still relatively small.
And legitimate CDs can be had at local Carrefour outlets, though I've no idea how well they sell.
(Editing by Doug Young & Ian Geoghegan)

Reuters