This little bit of nonsense from Mac-centric freelance writer Ian Betteridge plopped into my RSS reader this morning: Activation becomes more annoying.
My eWeek colleague Mary Jo Foley takes a look at Microsoft’s decision to change Windows activation so that you will have no longer be able to activate via the Internet if you’re using a PC from one of the major vendors. While I can understand Microsoft’s reasons for this, it makes activation just slightly more irritating…
Which is followed by the familiar “get a Mac” coda.
Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Oh, but wait. What Mr. Betteridge doesn’t know, because he isn’t really a Windows specialist, is that if you buy a new computer from one of these “major vendors,” you don’t have to activate it. The system manufacturer activates your copy of Windows when the computer is built. You can reinstall the operating system on that computer using the original Windows XP CD as many times as you want, with no activation required. You would need to call for activation only if one of the following circumstances were true:
You were trying to use the original installation CD on a different computer than the one it was purchased with. (That would be a violation of the license agreement, and that is the whole point of this change.)
You upgraded the system BIOS with a flash that didn’t include the System Locked Pre-installation information.
You replaced the motherboard with one from a different manufacturer that did not include the same BIOS.
You substantially changed the computer by replacing multiple components simultaneously. (A couple minor upgrades won’t do it; assuming the motherboard is from the same manufacturer, you would need to replace practically every other internal component to trigger this so-called out-of-tolerance condition.)
Your system has been infected by a virus that replaced the contents of the BIOS. (I can’t remember the last time I heard of one of these appearing outside of a virus-testing lab, and if you get a BIOS-level virus you have much bigger problems than activation.)
If one of these conditions is true, you will need to call a toll-free number to activate your installation. I’ve done this a few times and can report that the process typically takes less than 10 minutes. But most people who buy a computer from Dell or Gateway or HP or another of the world’s top 20 PC makers will never encounter the need to activate.
Back in 2001, when Windows XP was still in beta, I remember reading predictions that Windows Product Activation would be such an incovenience that it would result in catastrophic failure for the new OS. That didn’t happen. In fact, can you even remember the last time you thought about product activation? For most people, most of the time, it’s simply a non-issue. And that’s what this change will mean: nothing.
Update: Dell’s Web site offers a very clear explanation of the differences in activation between a retail copy (which requires Windows Product Activation) and an OEM copy that uses the System Locked Preinstallation technology. Although the specifics of this explanation apply to PowerEdge servers running Windows Server 2003, the exact same technology is used for Windows XP installations. I’ve highlighted the relevant section:
The Windows Server 2003 OS must be activated after installation. An OS installed manually using a Microsoft retail CD is activated through Windows Product Activation (WPA), which requires each installation of the OS to be activated either online or by phone through a Microsoft License Server clearinghouse.
The Windows Server 2003 CD that ships with PowerEdge servers has a built-in anti-piracy technology known as System Locked Preinstallation (SLP). The SLP feature enables administrators to bind the OS to a system’s specific hardware so that activating Windows Server 2003 is not necessary. When an SLP-enabled CD is used to install the OS, administrators need not type in a unique product key.
Because SLP-enabled CDs are designed only for clean installations of Windows Server 2003, administrators installing the OS using the CD should also boot from it. SLP is not supported while running setup.exe or winnt32.exe, because these executable files run from within an existing Windows environment.
An SLP implementation is transparent to the end user, without any noticeable difference from a manual installation using retail media. However, the SLP process works only on supported PowerEdge servers that ship with Windows Server 2003. In addition, any tampering with the SLP-enabled CD automatically invokes WPA. The SLP-enabled CD is available only for 32-bit versions of Windows Server 2003, not 64-bit versions.
This technology is available to all OEMs and is very widely used.
Update: I have posted a very detailed follow-up on the changes in Windows Product Activation and what it means for you.