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Why Product Activation Is Wrong

No one in the press has written more about the problems with Microsoft's Windows Product Activation than yours truly. Few people really understand the anti-piracy measure. Read on to become one of them. (Jump to the Product Activation Resource List.)

By Scot Finnie

It's all too easy to make presumptions about Windows Product Activation. I couldn't even begin to count the number of email messages sent to me that showed their writers didn't have a firm grasp on this subject. That's not surprising since there are many things Microsoft hasn't fully explained about product activation. It's also a confusing subject. Confusing because there are both ethical and technical issues to wade through.

There's a lot of irony to writing a newsletter. In recent weeks and months I've received several interesting reader emails about Windows Product Activation, the anti-piracy measure implemented in Windows XP aimed at defeating casual Windows piracy. What's interesting is that half the people are lambasting me because I've taken a stand against product activation. The other half are chastising me for having "given up" the fight.

Well blast me if you're for product activation — because I very definitely am not. Microsoft has every right to defend its intellectual property from unlicensed copying. Because of that, I have chosen not to publish any information about cracks to the product activation technology. Instead, I'm holding out (probably in vain) for Microsoft to realize the error of its ways. You see, the way Microsoft has implemented privacy protection will be especially aggravating to power users over time. And whether you know it or not, anyone reading this newsletter is either already a power user or a power user in training.

I also take issue with Microsoft's software license. I believe that it should be one man (or woman), one copy of the operating system. Microsoft believes that there should a copy of the OS for each PC you own. I personally own 10 PCs. No one uses them but me. Should I have to buy 10 separate copies of Windows? Microsoft believes so. Again, this penalty hits power users the most.

For those of you who believe I've given up the fight because I'm covering Windows XP in Scot’s Newsletter (SFNL), please get real. SFNL is a newsletter about Windows and broadband. Some 50 percent of the readers are in process of or planning to move to Windows XP. I will cover Windows XP, because anything else would be a betrayal of what this newsletter is about. Product activation annoys me a good deal, but there are many good things about the new Windows.

I've written over a dozen articles on product activation dating back to February 2001. Prior to that, I covered BIOS-locked Windows CDs that come with new PCs. If you want to get fully up to speed, this is the place. In particular, to understand how Product Activation works, read: How Product Activation Works.

The Product Activation Resource List

  • Windows Product Activation (WPA) on Windows XP (Alex Nichol, MS-MVP, for Aumha.org)
  • How Product Activation Works (SFNL)
  • Windows XP and Other People on Product Activation (SFNL)
  • Product Activation Loose Ends (SFNL)
  • Product Activation Is Microsoft's Big Mistake (SFNL)
  • Changes to Product Activation and Other Win XP Stuff (SFNL)
  • Knocking Product Activation (SFNL)
  • Angry About Office XP Activation (SFNL)
  • Microsoft Product Activation Exposed (SFNL)
  • Some Good News About Product Activation (SFNL)
  • Product Activation Fall-Out (Windows Insider)
  • Microsoft's New XP Anti-Piracy Measure (Windows Insider)
  • Windows CD-less News PCs (Windows Insider)

    Informed Product Activation Opinion

    The following is an abridged quote of message sent to me by someone who is profoundly involved with Microsoft products (which is why I'm not publishing the name). I thought you'd find it interesting:

    I'm advising people who are not in a volume license agreement (the CDs shipped to volume licensees don't have activation) to pick up Win2K and Office2K if they don't have them now, and plan to stick with them for the foreseeable future. They're good, they run on less-demanding hardware, and they're not substantially different from Win XP and Office XP. And you'll probably still be able to install them, pain-free, three years from now.

    I would not be surprised to see the major OEMs getting together to set standards for a "standard Linux desktop," offering a hefty prize for the best solution (like $10 million). They could basically steal UI and usability standards from PC GUIs like Windows itself (e.g., a single installation of a font or a printer will be available to all applications) to define the standard. One could argue that they'll never get together on a standard, but in fact they already do gravitate toward the standards that Microsoft dictates. Furthermore, with the right incentive, they would probably get two or three compliant candidates that would allow them some differentiation.

    A $10 million prize is roughly what they pay in royalties to Microsoft for half a million PCs, which is roughly one percent of the major OEMs annual output, so you can see that they don't need a huge take rate to get their money back.

    There would unquestionably be major headaches associated with starting this up, and those costs (e.g., retraining support desks) could easily run into the billions. But the long-term benefit to OEMs of being able to differentiate their products on top of a free, stable, open-source OS, would be enormous. In fact, I'd be surprised if they weren't talking about this already.