Windows Product Activation (WPA) is rarely a hot topic anymore, but I recently had two interesting experiences with it. What makes them interesting is that they were just the opposite of what I expected to happen. I should mention that I've had few problems with WPA since it was implemented, and the current automated phone system solved all but one, which required human intervention because of the differences between retail licenses and the license provided with a Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscription.

The first recent problem was with a friend's computer, which I had put together for her side business--a small nonprofit organization. Over time, her system became infested with malware and spyware, and I decided that a complete reinstallation was the best solution. She dropped the computer at my house along with the disks I'd originally provided with it, including the retail OS and application CDs. I had burned a combination CD-ROM for Windows XP that included Service Pack 2 (SP2), and using that disk with the retail copy's product activation key wasn't a problem.

What did develop into a problem, though, was the activation of Microsoft Office XP. Despite the fact that it was the same copy that was originally installed on the same hardware, the copy wouldn't activate over the Internet or through the automated phone system. I had to talk to someone at the activation center and tell him that the software was installed only on this computer. I double-checked with my friend, who said that the disks had remained in the envelope I gave her and that the software hadn't been installed anywhere else. I had no reason to doubt her, yet WPA required re-activation after I reinstalled the same retail copy of Office XP on the same hardware.

The second situation happened when my primary desktop computer died last week. It gave a brief beep, then shut itself off. I was in the middle of finishing a major project, and all my research notes were on the computer that died. A quick video-card swap didn't solve the problem, so I was off to the local computer store to pick up a newer Intel motherboard and the best dollar-value CPU I could find (a Pentium 4 2.8GHz HT). Neither the motherboard nor the CPU were cutting edge, but both were a couple of steps up from the motherboard/CPU combination they would replace. (Betting that the old motherboard's memory wasn't the problem, I reused it in the new motherboard.)

I spent about 20 minutes pulling the old motherboard, swapping in the new one, reinstalling the various bus cards and video adapter, and reconnecting all the disks. I booted the new hardware, and Windows XP spent the next 20 minutes finding and reinstalling all the video drivers, system-board drivers, and the peripherals and drives I'd attached to the box via USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394. When that process finished, Windows XP rebooted once more and I was up and running with a noticeably faster computer. Much to my surprise, WPA didn't require me to reactivate the OS, despite the presence of a new CPU and motherboard.

This was the simplest major hardware upgrade I've ever done. Everything worked correctly the first time, and Windows XP was perfectly happy with the hardware changes, adapting to them without difficulty and handling the reconfiguration with nary a complaint. But I was surprised that I didn't need to reactivate the OS. Should I hear from Microsoft about why that was the case, I'll let you know what I learn.