I met with Microsoft last week to discuss Windows XP's final release, and quite honestly, I wasn't expecting much. I've been using XP beta versions since February, but the OS has changed very little lately, and I thought I'd seen everything the OS had to offer. To my amazement, I learned a lot, and I'd like to pass along a few bits of information about XP, some of which are good news indeed.

Windows Product Activation
Nothing in XP has received as much bad press as Windows Product Activation (WPA). But Microsoft made two not-so-subtle changes to WPA in early August, and then had the temerity to not broadcast those changes to its customers and the press. I would have shouted the news from rooftops.

The first change affects users who receive XP with a new PC—which is the way approximately 90 percent of Microsoft's customers acquire a copy of Windows. These users won't ever have to activate or reactivate XP. Copies of XP that ship with new PCs are coded only to the BIOS. You can change every piece of hardware on that machine, even the motherboard (assuming you stick with a BIOS made by the same PC maker), and you can install and reinstall XP as many times as your heart desires. You'll never have to activate the OS. On the other hand, you can't install on another machine the XP copy that came on your new PC's rescue CD-ROM, but such has been the case with most previous versions of Windows.

The second WPA change affects people who purchase XP in retail stores. XP will examine 10 hardware components to determine whether to require reactivation. Users can change at least six components (up from four) before needing to reactivate, assuming the NIC is unchanged. And changing the same component over and over again (e.g., a video card) counts as only one change. Adding components to your system is not a change.

WPA is still a bitter pill to swallow, but I think these changes mark a positive and unexpected change in Microsoft's policy. For more information, refer to the WPA bulletin that Microsoft posted to the Web early last month.

Additional Family Licenses and Professional Step-Up
Earlier this year, I implored Allen Nieman and others at Microsoft to consider some sort of XP home license, and although they said they were working on such a license, I heard in late June that the matter was dead. Well, it's dead no more: Microsoft is indeed going to offer home users the ability to buy XP Family Licenses at an 8 to 12 percent discount over the typical retail price. XP Family Licenses require that one user per home purchase a retail or OEM copy of XP, and then family members can purchase as many additional licenses as they want.

In another cost-saving measure, Microsoft will offer an XP Professional Edition Step-Up product for XP Home Edition users. Many PC makers will ship PCs with XP Home Edition, which is cheaper. You can upgrade XP Home Edition to XP Professional Edition for the $199.99 Upgrade price, but the Step-Up product will cost about $125.

MP3 Encoding and DVD-Playback Add-ons
Microsoft made some XP concessions this summer regarding MP3 encoding and DVD playback. The company announced in mid-July that several third-party developers will create inexpensive add-on packs that bring these capabilities to XP. While speaking with Microsoft last week, I was surprised to discover just how cheap these add-ons will be: The MP3 Encoding packs will cost $10, and the DVD playback packs will cost $10 to $20. This price is reasonable, and if you need such features, the add-ons will be downloadable from the Web by XP's October 25 release date.

Windows Messenger/.NET Integration
Microsoft is still not talking much about this development, but the company will significantly update Windows Messenger between now and late October, through Windows Update. Windows Messenger is an instant-messaging tool with video and audio-conferencing capabilities—but it's also much more: Microsoft is using this tool as a funnel through which many Microsoft .NET services will interact with XP, and the company will bring Windows Messenger up to speed with some of the features included in MSN Messenger, the Messenger version people can use with other versions of Windows. MSN Messenger includes tabs for stock quotes and other features not yet in Windows Messenger.

Microsoft will also update Windows Messenger to work with Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server as the authentication server, so enterprises can use Messenger inhouse as a real-time communications tool. This tool is exciting for businesses, which are slowly beginning to appreciate its applicability to the workplace.

Windows Movie Maker Version 1.2 Update
I won't spend much time on this topic, but Microsoft will update Windows Movie Maker (WMM) from the 1.1 version found in the XP retail box to version 1.2. This new version will include support for Windows Media Video 8 (WMV8) and a new 640 x 480 WMV mode for digital video. Microsoft will make WMM 1.2 available through Windows Update.

I'll have more about the late-breaking XP changes in my release to manufacturing (RTM) review, found on the SuperSite for Windows. But I'm interested in your plans for XP. For consumers, XP is an obvious sell, but does the OS offer enough for the enterprise? Please let me know what you think.