In an effort to thwart piracy, Microsoft has started requiring users to “activate” new installations of some software--a process that could pose problems for everyday users. The technology, called Windows Product Activation, already is in Office XP and is expected to be in Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows XP, slated for release this fall.
Right now, when you install most Microsoft software, you’re required to type in the “CD key,” a long combination of numbers and letters printed on a sticker on the CD jewel case. Without that code, the installation won’t continue.
But with activation, there’s another step. After the installation is complete, you are asked to activate your copy by sending Microsoft identifying information about your computer. If you don’t, Windows XP will run initially but stop working after 30 days.
If you can connect to the Internet and all goes well, the process is fairly painless. The operating system connects to the Internet and sends two strings of numbers to Microsoft: a “hardware hash code” that identifies the unique characteristics of your computer and a “product ID code” that’s unique to your copy of Windows.
The two strings prevent users from installing the software on another machine. If you have more than one PC at home, you’ll have to purchase a separate copy of Windows XP for each. The upgrade version is expected to cost about $100 for the Home edition and $200 for the Professional version.
Microsoft’s licensing agreement has always required users to purchase a copy for each machine, but now the company has a way to enforce it. I can’t argue with Microsoft’s right to protect its copyrights, but I am concerned that the method it plans to use could cause problems for legitimate users.
I tested the Internet activation process with three copies of a recently released preview version of both the Professional and Home editions of Windows XP. In two cases, the Internet activation worked fine. My desktop machines, which are connected to a digital subscriber line via a local area network, made the connections and activated the software.
But XP temporarily disabled my laptop’s wireless network card so it couldn’t connect to the Internet. Even though I had 30 days, I didn’t want to take any chances of having XP fail while I was on an airplane or otherwise away from a phone or Internet connection. So, I searched for “activate” in the help system and was instructed how to run the Windows Product Activation program.
The software offered a toll-free number. I was kept on hold for five minutes and then connected to an operator who asked me to read a 50-digit code generated by the activation program. He typed it in his computer, which, in turn, generated a 42-digit code that he read to me as I typed. The process, which took about five minutes, isn’t the hardest thing in the world to endure, but it is an inconvenience.
You have to reactivate your copy of Windows if you reinstall it on your existing machine or a replacement computer. Sometimes that’s the only reasonable solution to a problem such as a computer crash or a sluggish, unreliable system. Windows also needs to be reinstalled if a user replaces the hard drive or upgrades to a new machine that doesn’t already come with XP.
Microsoft claims that the process doesn’t transmit any personal information. Product registration, which does ask for your name and contact information, is optional. Although the process might not be as draconian as some people claim, it is nevertheless one more set of steps and one more thing that can go wrong in an already cumbersome and error-prone process.
Like most other copyright-protection technologies, it inconveniences legitimate users while failing to fully protect the copyright holder from sophisticated pirates. Despite the activation scheme, I’m willing to bet that bootleg copies of Windows XP--complete with tools to get around activation--will wind up on the Internet and the black market shortly after the product hits store shelves.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.
Connect: Check out past columns at www.latimes.com/pcfocus