Windows XP Product Activation (WPA) is Microsoft’s much-talked-about foray into end-user piracy protection for its latest operating system. Love it or hate it, WPA appears to be here to stay. Without getting into the political and social ramifications of the privacy debate that surrounds WPA, I’ll cut to the chase by examining the process of how to activate a Windows XP installed client.

Does everybody have to activate?
If you’re wondering whether this applies to everyone, the short answer is, not exactly. If your organization licenses Windows XP through one of Microsoft’s volume licensing agreement programs, such as Open License and Select License, you won’t have to activate Windows XP. Organizations that use these programs are required to use a Volume License Product Key (VLK), a product key tied to a specific license agreement. Different VLKs apply to different Microsoft products. The Windows XP VLK will bypass WPA for individual machines. So, if you have to deploy multiple machines, you can use Windows XP deployment tools to automate VLK entry into your multiple XP clients. How this is accomplished depends on how you deploy software in your organization. The point is that your end users won’t be asked to activate their individual copy of Windows XP under one of these volume license agreements.

For those that do have to activate
If you’re supporting an organization that doesn’t fall under the previously described licensing agreement categories, fear not; WPA is not exactly brain surgery. First off, your users should understand that activating Windows XP is different from registering it. While registering the product is optional, WPA is not. After 30 days from the first boot, they won’t be allowed to use Windows XP until they activate it.

During that first 30 days, your users will be reminded repeatedly about activating XP, as well as the number of days left before activation must be completed. As the number of days to activation dwindles, the frequency of the reminders increases. So, to avoid the annoying reminders, it’s best to activate as soon as the operating system is first loaded, unless, of course, you anticipate that Microsoft will cease the WPA program during your 30-day activation period (not likely).

During installation of Windows XP, you’ll be asked to enter the product key associated with your user’s copy of Windows XP. After you enter the product key and accept the End User License Agreement (EULA), you’ll be prompted to activate Windows XP (Figure A).

Figure A
If now is not a good time to activate, click the No, Remind Me Every Few Days radio button.

The Yes, Activate Windows Over The Internet Now option available on the Ready To Activate Windows wizard will check your Internet connection and send your information. If the connection is good, the product key you entered during installation will be transformed into a 50-digit Installation ID number. This Installation ID number gets transmitted to Microsoft and is an encrypted form of your product number; it also includes a checksum for security purposes. For activation, no personal information is transmitted to Microsoft. Once the Installation ID is created, the checksum cannot be calculated back to its original values. After Microsoft receives the Installation ID number, a Confirmation ID is sent back, which will unlock Windows XP for normal use.

This brings us to the issue of what happens if you upgrade a machine. According to Microsoft, if you “overhaul your computer by replacing a substantial number of hardware components, it may appear to be a different PC and you will have to reactivate.” What Microsoft considers “substantial” is not specifically spelled out at this time, but I’m sure that if you replace a motherboard, processor, or hard drive, Microsoft will require you to reactivate.

Activating after installation
If you support users that decide to activate after the initial installation, the process is similar to the steps described above. In the right-hand corner of the taskbar is a WPA icon that informs the user how many days are left until activation must be completed (Figure B). The user can click on the icon or select Start | All Programs | Activate Windows to bring up the Let’s Activate Windows wizard (Figure C).

Figure B
When the user clicks the icon, the Let’s Activate Windows wizard appears.

Figure C

Here, the user is given three choices: activate over the Internet, activate over the phone, or activate later. While the activating later option is clear and activating over the Internet is no different than the process described above, activating over the phone brings up a second input screen (Figure D) and requires about five minutes to complete.

Figure D
The user must go through a four-step process to complete phone activation.

The first step to activate Windows XP by phone is choosing the location of the PC and dialing the toll-free number that results from this selection. Phone activation is an automated process, so the user will need to use a touch-tone phone. Basically, the user must manually enter on the phone pad the 50-digit Installation ID from step three, and then he or she will be given a 50-digit Confirmation ID to enter into the computer. Mistakes might be common, but the fudge factor is minimized with several chances to correct any errors. That’s it. The PC can now use Windows XP, free from annoying reminders. Connecting over the Internet is the easiest option because it’s done with little user intervention, but the phone option is available for users who aren’t connected.