Many readers have sent me their opinions about product activation—Microsoft's controversial plan to combat software piracy. If you've been vacationing in Bali for the past few months and haven't kept up with this hot topic, here it is in a nutshell: Certain Microsoft products, such as Windows XP and Office XP, require you to activate them, either over the Internet or by phone, with a special code that identifies the product and the machine you're installing it on.

Microsoft says that minor upgrades to your machine, such as adding hard disks or memory, shouldn't cause the product-activation software to think you're trying to violate your license agreement. And if you must reinstall the XP software, you can call Microsoft for a new activation code.

Many people talk about this activation process in a theoretical sense, but I've actually had to go through it. In the course of testing a dual-processor AMD workstation last week, I had my first run-in with the Microsoft product-activation bogeyman.

The first sign of trouble was a response from the product-activation application that someone had already activated that copy of Office XP and that I needed to call the product-activation center if the application had made an error. I knew the application hadn't made an error, but I also knew I was in compliance with the license agreement because I had wiped the previously activated installations from the systems before I returned the systems to the vendors. But how could I explain the situation to the person who answered the phone at the product-activation center? Here's a brief, edited transcript of the conversation:

David Chernicoff (DC): Hi. I need to activate a copy of Office XP. I've already activated this copy, but I've replaced the system it was on with the system I want to activate it on now.

Customer Support (CS): Can you read me the code numbers that the activation application provided? (I read the numbers.) Sir, that copy has already been activated twice.

DC: I know that, but I've already wiped the systems I installed the product on and returned the systems to their respective vendors.

CS: Where did you get the product?

DC: Directly from Microsoft's PR agency.

CS: It's an OEM copy?

DC: No. It's the release to manufacturing \[RTM\] Gold code.

CS: I don't understand what that means.

(I gave a brief explanation of RTM and Gold code.)

CS: Can I put you on hold while I talk to my supervisor?

(About 5 minutes go by—without any music—while I'm on hold.)

CS: So this is an OEM copy of Office XP?

DC: No. Just consider it a retail box copy.

CS: So the software didn't come with the computer?

DC: No.

CS: But this copy has already been activated.

(At this point, I describe what I do for a living and why this copy needs to be activated manually. The representative doesn't understand.)

CS: Do you have a developer license?

DC: No, but I'm a Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) universal subscriber.

CS: Oh, good, that allows 11 activations.

(The product activation representative then gave me an activation code.)

I'm not sure what my MSDN subscription had to do with this situation, and I wonder what would have happened if that little tidbit of information hadn't surfaced. Would I still be on the phone, trapped in a situation that the product-activation system wasn't designed to handle? Or what if I was a typical user, who decided to install a retail copy of Office XP on a current system while waiting for a new computer to arrive?

I'm willing to bet that the product-activation center hasn't had many users call to activate Office XP on a replacement machine yet, so perhaps the representatives just need a little more experience. Activating the product took longer than it took to install it. I hope more traditional users will have a better experience than I did when trying to upgrade their Office XP installations 6 months or a year down the road.