Microsoft

Talking Shop: Sort through FUD on Microsoft product activation

An explanation of how Microsoft product activation works


Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Through the years, Microsoft's rivals have accused the company of using FUD as a way to stifle competition. Now, ironically, those same tactics are being turned against the Redmond giant. Its reported plans to require "activation" of Windows XP as an antipiracy tactic have TechRepublic members up in arms, as evidenced by the response to my most recent Microsoft Challenge and another, similar discussion elsewhere on TechRepublic's boards.

IT professionals are among the best informed and most sophisticated of all Microsoft's customers. So it's especially disturbing to see what a terrible job the company has done in explaining how this new policy will affect its customers—at home and in corporations. You can read Microsoft's official Product Activation Fact Sheet and Product Activation Q&A, but most people won't. And you can expect a huge number of misinformed reporters to repeat the myths and misunderstandings expressed by fearful users.

In three consecutive columns, I plan to tackle the product activation issue head-on. This week, I'll look at some of the unjustified fears engendered by this new policy. Next week, I'll focus on the legitimate concerns and unanswered questions raised by this policy. Finally, in two weeks, I'll use your suggestions to tell Microsoft how they ought to run this scheme.

First, here’s an overview of how product activation is supposed to work. When you install Windows XP or Office XP from a retail CD, you'll have 30 days to contact Microsoft to get an activation code. For most users with an Internet connection, this will happen automatically. The activation process generates a "fingerprint" based on the hardware in your system and associates that with your 25-character Product ID. If you reinstall the software on the same system, you can reactivate it automatically. If you try to install the software on another machine with substantially different hardware, however, you may have to call Microsoft to get a new activation code.

Here are a few of the fears, uncertainties, and doubts that cropped up in responses to this week's Challenge:
  • Every time you reinstall Windows, you'll need a new code. R. Kinner is already prepared to join a class action lawsuit against Microsoft: "If I, as a home user, am forced over the course of a year to reinstall XP five times, and MS refuses me a sixth code, they are the ones breaking the commerce contract that was begun when I purchased the software." Call off the lawyers! You can reinstall Windows or Office XP an unlimited number of times on the same hardware. The activation will be automatic.
  • You'll need to call MS for permission every time you replace a piece of hardware. Member PRT wrote, "It could be a nightmare if each install on the hardware generates a different key, requiring a new activation. Microsoft never pins down what a 'significant hardware change' is that would require a new activation. I'm sure upgrading your system board will require a new activation, but how about doubling your RAM, adding or replacing a hard drive, updating your BIOS?" We won't know until the software is finally released, but a Microsoft spokesman assured me that none of these garden-variety upgrades will be an issue. Microsoft says the algorithm that generates the hardware fingerprint won't force a reactivation until you've essentially rebuilt the computer.
  • It's a violation of privacy. A member who prefers to remain anonymous wrote, "I think it is an invasion of privacy. I don't send in registration cards, because I don't want companies having my personal data." Another nonissue. Activation requires no personal information at all. As with all Microsoft products, users will have the option to register Office XP and Windows XP, but the only required data point on the product activation screen is the country you're in.
  • Every individual in a corporation will be forced to get a unique license code. Repeatedly, TechRepublic members expressed concerns like this one from Blaine Moore: "Imagine having a thousand people from one company trying to get codes at the same time, or one admin needing a thousand codes for different machines?" Another member, with the colorful handle skkzarg_death, explained why this shouldn't be a problem for most organizations: "Those with MSDN, Select, or other subscription plans will have a 'blank license' allowing them to install and use one 'copy' for multiple installs. Rolling out XP for me thus won't be an issue, except the beta I have isn't worth the CD it's pressed onto!"
  • Pirates will crack it in no time. Two TechRepublic members, in fact, helpfully posted detailed instructions for bypassing the activation requirement in current beta copies. Microsoft tells me those backdoors will be removed from the final shipping code; they're only there to facilitate the testing process. And that argument misses the point, anyway: Of course pirates will crack this protection scheme. The point of activation is to prevent casual copying by home users and crooked resellers. Microsoft has an army of lawyers to do battle with pirates who work on a larger scale.

Next week: The problems Microsoft hasn't addressed yet.

Here's Ed's new Challenge
TechRepublic members have made it clear that Microsoft is risking a public relations nightmare with its insistence on requiring product activation for Windows XP and Office XP. But the company responds that it has to do something to prevent piracy, especially in the home market. Some users are getting ripped off by crooked resellers who preload bootleg copies of Windows and Office, they say, and others are turning into criminals by using CD burners to press illegal copies of Windows disks for family and friends.

OK, if product activation isn't the answer, then what is? Imagine you're running the Windows or Office business at Microsoft—how do you keep your product from being stolen without inconveniencing your customers or holding their PCs hostage? I'll take the best suggestions and pass them along to Microsoft. If you think you’ve got the answers, click here to tackle this week's Microsoft Challenge. I'll print the best responses two weeks from today.
If you'd like to share your opinion, start a discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.

Editor's Picks