Inside Activation

Office XP/Windows XP product activation feature can be thwarted, German company finds.

Both Office XP and Windows XP include Microsoft's new Product Activation feature, designed to discourage casual piracy. When you install a copy of the protected software, it generates a unique Installation ID that is sent to Microsoft over the Web or by phone. Microsoft returns an activation code that authorizes the software. Without the activation code, the software stops working, and because the Installation ID is based on part on your computer's hardware you can't use the same activation code to install one copy of the software on multiple PCs. Corporate copies, such as those purchased under the Open Licensing program, are not included in the Product Activation program.

A German company, Fully Licensed GmbH, has reverse-engineered the Product Activation scheme used in Microsoft Windows XP. Their research shows that most of the Installation ID is derived by encrypting the Windows serial number, and that the hardware information sent to Microsoft is minimal and not an invasion of privacy. They also determined that you can change up to three major hardware items (CPU, network card, hard drive, graphics adapter, RAM, drive adapter) in your computer before you'll need to reactivate Windows. You can read the complete results of their research at

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy, MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, is a former MCP columnist and the author of numerous development books.

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Reader Comments:

Tue, Nov 26, 2002 rb usa

maybe in a world where microsoft windows weren't the industry standard for home / office computing could i see the sense in it. however, with microsoft's current retail prices staying put (win98 standard = $99.99) and nothing becoming public domain, why should the do it yourselfers or economically strapped bear the burden? computing is where the future lay, soon everyone will need to know how to handle a pc to survive in society; why should software companies get rich off of our dependancy? i say forget it microsoft, let the consumer find ways to freely copy and distribute software like in the begining. increase your market share by finding way to help society, not enslave it. then, maybe then will you stop having to protect your profit from people as people begin to profit from your protection.

Tue, Sep 4, 2001 Anonymous Anonymous

Microsoft is crazy. The "forced" activation will make stronger the Linux/BSD community, the governament, a big consummer of MS products, will move to free open source

Mon, Sep 3, 2001 Anonymous France

Activation is a bad feature for several reasons :

- As usal, this will bother only honest people, who have bought the product and shall try to install it themelves, fail and shall not be able to restart the setup process because of the activation barrier; those who change their hardware because having bought XP, they realise that they have to, those whose machine has crashed and need to reinstall the whole system, etc ... The non-honest people shall have the crack (as usual) to setup the same XP CD several time on as many hardware as they like.
- The IT professionnals who have training purposes. With this new "functionnality", I (for example) shall no longer be able to install XP on several PCs and have them available during several weeks for training purposes . So this ends up self-training (I really think this since I saw that there was no evaluation version of Win2k provided with the 4 self-training books on Windows 2000 core exams).
- Is Microsoft is getting more arrogant and starving (of what ?) ; do Microsoft really need to bring such a "feature" to have more incomes ? Maybe yes (for R&D purposes maybe), but this mean that after having tolerated that their products be freely copied to conquer the market (and maybe to beat Apple in the 90's, maybe), they can allow themselves to restore a copy-protection feature and not lose this advantage to be the almost only desktop OS to be used in business. This may clearly show that Microsoft is the only company providing desktop and server OS a Office suite in the US and even in the world. This fact might be simply unacceptable to some people. This will only contribute for Microsoft to have a more bad "image" and give reason to the free-software community saying that Microsoft is only a "copy and make money" company (whcih is not quite true). In fact, such a behavior from Microsoft makes it an-IBM like company, with all the boring and rigidity that goes with it. Is the next step is selling IE when Netscape is definitly down ?

Many IT people need and like a company making good quality easy to use and to learn products, and like Microsoft when it is inventive and innovative. The danger is that this feature would clearly turn some people away from Microsoft, especially those people who are individual workers and do all the setup and support job themselves. If they lose some customers because of the activation feature, they will quickly make their next choice (or maybe go buy Microsoft products in China). And nobody need this to happen.

Sun, Sep 2, 2001 Darell Anonymous

microsoft has finally come up with a solution to piracy that will all but eliminate casual copying of windows and office. unfortunately (for them) probably the most common piracy occurs when business users copy their disks from work then pass them around. with open license copies not involved in this protection they will likely end up in the same place they have always been. and this will hurt the home consumer (at least at first). for those of us who own more than one PC at home (i have 4) we will have to either buy 4 new copies of windows/office or wait until a business copy lends itself available to pirate. if microsoft wants to ensure licensing compliance they need to do it across the board. then they should be able to greatly reduce the cost of the software as more licenses become necessary. if they could sell the software for 1/4 of the current price common folks could afford to buy 4 copies for their home use. it's not a bad idea they have, but they are applying it badly, and, they have yet to even hint that they could pass their realized gain onto the end users with lower prices if/when it becomes impossible to pirate the software.

Sun, Sep 2, 2001 Anonymous Anonymous

Activation is a moronic idea. Microsoft is worth over a third of a billion dollars, and they did not require activiation to get there. They really shot themselves in the foot with this one. Rather than growing the PC market with XP, I expect sales to slow as companies and individuals do not see any advantages to upgrading to a spyware products.

Thu, Aug 30, 2001 Randall B. Wilson Atlanta, Ga

License activation is a good idea. I can not count the times I have been forced to install software illegally, not at this company.

However, basing in on the hardware configuration in inappropriate. Causing unneccessary downtime of PCs.

Instead - use the MAC address of the NIC or the seriel number of the processor. The latter being my preference. CPUs rarily fail, and only through the retirement of an compete unit, or replacement of the hard drive would the OS need to be replaced. Although sometimes the only way to correct an OS error is to reinstall the OS. Even though, the activation code would simply be reinserted at this time and would still match the CPU's seriel number. The one exception would be the retirement of a PC - at which time a call to Microsoft would be appropriate.

Windows has enough problems without adding the down time of activation for the above stated reasons.

Microsoft OWES a commitment to the users as well as to the software providers.

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