Activating a new catastrophe


I want to discuss a disaster Microsoft Corp. is creating for us in the name of preventing theft of its intellectual properties.

The root of the problem is a registration mechanism the company has produced called the Microsoft Product Activation system, which applies to Windows XP, Visio 2000 and eventually (so Microsoft plans) to most of the company’s products that have significant price tags.

Product Activation is a perversely complicated system that inspects your PC to create a code that, in essence, “fingerprints” your system.

That fingerprint, combined with the product identification code (that long character sequence on the back of the CD jewel case), is passed over an Internet connection (or phoned in if you’re not connected) to Microsoft. Microsoft, in turn, generates an Activation Code that lets you “unlock” the product.

If you want a lot more of the grisly, arcane details of what goes on in the Activation Process, you absolutely have to check out Fully Licensed GmbH’s XP-related content, which goes into hideous detail and even provides executables to report on the fingerprint and details of an activated system.

Depending on the product, you are allowed a maximum of so many days and/or launches before you register/activate, after which it stops working.

So far, so good but…if you should modify your hardware configuration or your PC clock is wrong or other changes or conditions occur, the software assumes foul play is afoot and demands you re-register (I have also seen comments – so far unsubstantiated – that there are limits to re-registration after which the product becomes nonfunctional).

Does Product Activation apply to volume licensing of Microsoft products? Nope. Which means it will only apply to branch offices (if they buy locally), teleworkers, small businesses and consumers.

So we might ask “Why does Microsoft think that Product Activation is necessary? What is the point of this system?” This is the answer from Microsoft: “to reduce a form of piracy known as ‘casual copying’ or ‘softlifting.’…This form of piracy is prevalent and has been estimated by some industry trade groups to account for a staggering 50 per cent of the economic losses due to piracy.”

OK, Bill, but let’s not kid ourselves. Stamping out this kind of piracy – and no one is saying it isn’t piracy; your End User License Agreement prohibits unauthorized duplication and that’s what Product Activation is intended to stop – won’t increase sales.

Anyway, the “economic losses” are your problem, and any solution you might concoct should not affect nonpirates. But, I can guarantee Product Activation will make life more complex for all users, nonpirates and pirates alike.

But “No!” Microsoft claims. From the same document I cited above: “Corporate customers should only be minimally impacted, if at all.”

Minimally impacted? Since any “impact” beyond the usually tedious installation process (including the endless reboots) will, without doubt, cost users real time and real money, I find that hard to believe.

Microsoft has taken a complex product and made it even more complex for reasons that have nothing to do with improving product functionality or reliability. On the contrary, the added complexity results in a system that has new problems. In other words, Product Activation can go wrong.

I know because it happened to me. I installed legal copies of XP and Office XP and wasted 75 minutes talking with Microsoftoids on the phone.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at