Get up to Speed on Windows XP

Windows XP

Story Contents


Facts & Figures

Home & Pro Differences

Behind the New Wheel

Folders & Special Folders

Looking at 'My Pictures'

Windows Media Player 8

Internet Explorer 6.0

Functional Improvements

Personal Firewall

Remote Assistance

Backup & Restore

Product Activation

Hardware and Setup

Will Your Programs Run?


Beta Conclusions

Product Activation

Much has been written about Microsoft's new anti-piracy measure, known as Product Activation, which appears for the first time in Windows XP. The long and the short is this: When you buy a retail copy of Windows, you're only entitled to install it on one machine at a time. That means that even if you live alone, if you have three PCs, you need three separate copies of Windows. Whether you agree with that notion or not, Windows XP is going to go some distance toward enforcing that rule.

Before we go a step further explaining Product Activation, legally Microsoft has every right to enforce this rule. What may strike you as strange is that this anti-piracy measure isn't really aimed at confirmed software pirates. It's aimed at you -- everyday users of PCs. It's the casual copying of Windows among friends, neighbors, and family members that Microsoft is trying to prevent. Many times people don't even know they're doing something that goes against the software license when they hand a Windows CD to a friend to install. But they are.

One of this story's authors has written several detailed explanations of Product Activation. One appeared in the Windows Insider newsletter, and the other in an issue of Scot Finnie's Newsletter. If you want to be fully in the know, read those stories. What follows is a good summary, however.

What Is Activation?
Microsoft has devised an ingenious way of preventing thwarting attempts to install Windows XP on more than one PC. When you install Windows XP on your PC, toward the end of the installation process you'll be presented with a screen that asks you whether you want to Activate Windows now, or wait. If you choose to wait, that'll be it. After 30 days, however, you'll be forced to Activate. If you choose to Activate right away, so long as you have Internet access, the process literally takes under one minute. At the start, it's painless, fast, and just plain easy to activate Windows XP. And don't be confused, this isn't the same thing as Registration. Microsoft is not tracking any information about you. What's sent when you activate is a 50-digit code number, nothing more. Registration, a process that you can add to product activation as an option, does collect information about you. We would suggest you skip Registration because there's really nothing in it for you.

This is Microsoft's new anti-piracy measure, Product Activation as it appears in Windows XP Beta 2. Don't blink your eyes.
Click to see larger image

This is Microsoft's new anti-piracy measure, Product Activation as it appears in Windows XP Beta 2.
Don't blink your eyes.

So far so good. And, if you never attempt to install Windows from the same CD on a different PC and never upgrade the hardware on the first PC, you're golden. You'll soon forget all about Product Activation, and it'll never bite you. Even if you add RAM, or a hard drive, or a new motherboard, no problems with activation. But if you add RAM, and a hard drive, and a motherboard, Windows XP may ask you to reactivate before it will allow you to use Windows at all. Why? Because at that point, after a profound hardware change, Product Activation is no longer certain that Windows XP is on the same PC on which it was originally installed. At that point, you're almost certainly going to have to call Microsoft's toll-free Product Activation phone number and receive a new Confirmation ID number in order to keep using Windows. The same thing would happen on that second machine you installed Windows XP on with the same Windows XP CD. When you call the Product Activation number, the rep may well give you a new Confirmation ID number for your second PC. But it would be at that person's discretion whether to do so or not. Legally, he or she doesn't have to.

How Product Activation Works
For those of you who want to understand exactly how this works, here's a deeper explanation. During installation, Product Activation generates a Hardware ID in the form of a long number derived from your computer's unique hardware configuration. Microsoft is vague about how the Hardware ID is generated because it doesn't want to help would-be crackers. The Hardware ID number is combined with the Product Key number (the 25-digit code found on the back of your retail Windows CD's jewel case). Those two numbers are combined to create a 50-digit number known as the Installation ID. This number must be communicated to Microsoft, which verifies the number and gives you back a 42-digit Confirmation ID number. That last one is what unlocks Windows.

There are two ways to deliver the Installation ID number to Microsoft. The easiest way is just to agree to activate your computer from the Product Activation screen mentioned earlier. That process sends the Installation ID via the Internet to Microsoft's servers, which in turn, send back a 42-digit activation ID that allows Windows XP to operate. Does that sound complicated? Perhaps. But the user part of the process takes about 15 seconds. The actual turnaround time on the Internet is about five seconds. The process of activation is surprisingly fast and simple.

If you have to call Microsoft's Product Activation center, you will have to read the activation rep the 50-digit Installation ID number out loud over the phone and then write down the returning 42- digit Confirmation ID number. Microsoft says that it has gone to some pains to only use alphanumeric characters that are easy to speak on the telephone. (For example, the letters B, P, and T are probably excluded to avoid confusion.)

Reactivation and Hardware Issues
This potential need for "reactivation" is a touchy point for many more experienced users. Just to be clear, the upgrade of a single piece of hardware, even a motherboard, is unlikely to require Windows XP reactivation. Activation has been keyed to watch for multiple changes from the original Hardware ID. Unfortunately, it's not smart enough to separate three changes that happen over the course of a year from three changes that occur on the same day. In other words, the hardware changes are cumulative. That means that anyone who actively upgrades the hardware of his or her PCs will more than likely run into the need to reactivate sooner or later. There is a single hardware change that will certainly cause the need to reactivate. That occurs when you upgrade your hard drive by replacing your existing drive -- and you don't first copy the contents of your old drive to your new drive. That's because the information about your hardware configuration is stored on your hard drive (presumably somewhere in your Windows installation). Without that info present, Windows XP will effectively be in first-time installation mode.

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