Software-tracking scheme extended to Windows XP

It started with the international versions of Microsoft Office 2000 and crept into Office XP (formerly code-named Office 10). I first wrote about it in my editorial, "Where the Real Monopoly Is," June 2001. Since then, I've learned more about what I called "forced registration," and it has spread beyond Office. Microsoft plans to include this antipiracy technology in Windows XP, where it's known as Microsoft Product Activation or Windows Product Activation (WPA).

Why WPA?
Microsoft has stated that it designed WPA to prevent casual copying of its software. WPA collects the product key that you enter at the time of installation and generates a hash number based on a combination of system devices that probably includes the motherboard, the CPU, the disk drive, and the NIC. Windows XP then transmits the number over the Internet to Microsoft, which puts it in a database and returns to your system a code that will activate Windows XP. If you don't have a live Internet connection, you must call a Microsoft support representative and manually enter the a code that the representative provides. Microsoft has said that activation will be anonymous and separate from registration, at least initially.

After you register your system's code, OS reinstallations and system hardware upgrades will trigger a reactivation attempt that checks the Microsoft database and allows a predetermined number of reactivations. If you exceed your allotment of activations (the exact number of which Microsoft hasn't made public), the product will become unusable. At that point, you can call Microsoft and plead your case. If the company thinks your request has merit, it will grant you a new activation key. (You might want to keep a copy of Windows 2000 or Windows NT 4.0 handy to use while you negotiate with Microsoft about your Windows XP license.)

Bad for Business
WPA is certain to increase total cost of ownership (TCO) as well as installation and deployment difficulties. To ease the burden for corporate users, Microsoft has initially exempted customers with volume license agreements—aiming WPA at the less vocal consumer and small- business customers, which constitute a smaller portion of its revenue. Down the road, WPA will likely infiltrate all versions of Microsoft products sold to all types of customers.

As you would expect, WPA is unpopular. An unscientific poll on Windows 2000 Magazine's Web site found that 69 percent of the respondents would refuse to buy Windows XP because of WPA (http://www.win2000mag.com/poll/index.cfm?qid=188&action=previouspoll). In another unscientific online poll, this one by Sunbelt Software, 32 percent of respondents said they saw difficulties with WPA in their environment, and 60 percent said they would refuse to buy Windows XP if Microsoft left WPA in it (http://www.sunbelt-software.com/sunpoll.cfm?id=20).

Even in light of this unfavorable feedback, Microsoft appears determined to keep WPA. Why? To please shareholders and maintain revenue numbers in spite of a market glut and slowdown, and to try to move from a sales model that depends on product releases and market fluctuations to a subscription model that will provide the company with steadier income.

Given that reinstallation is still one of the primary methods of fixing Windows OS and application errors, Microsoft simply hasn't done a good enough job to deserve to place a burden such as WPA on its customers. WPA leaves users with three choices: accept Windows XP and the hassle of activation (if not now, then certainly in the future), stick with Win2K (and hope that activation isn't added later in a service pack), or start looking at other OSs (e.g., Linux).

I doubt that WPA is really in the best interests of Microsoft or its users. WPA could potentially stop users from migrating to Windows XP or even force them to another platform. If so, Microsoft will accomplish what no rival technology has been able to do.