Look, I’m not one of those Microsoft-is-the-Devil mad tinfoil hatters, okay? In our three-person household, I was personally responsible for the procurement and distribution of eight computers (fully operational computers, that is; there are also the husks and guts of possibly four to six more lying around here). Of those eight, four are PCs and four are Macs. I personally run five of the eight: three PCs/two Macs. So I’m hardly an exclusionist in my taste of platforms. (Though the curious lack of an Ubuntu box or even an IPCop router seems strange, I admit. I’ve got a copy each of Knoppix STD and BackTrack in my CD wallet, does that count?)
I appreciate completely what a work of art any operating system is, much less one that manages to work with a majority of hardware and software being crafted by heaping thousands of different individuals and organizations, each with just a slightly different idea of what constitutes the ideal implementation of this shim or that subroutine. Much much less one that has become the dominant operating system on its platform, indeed in the world. Christ knows I couldn’t do it. So kudos to Microsoft for their good work in providing the world with the juggernaut that is Windows XP. Vista; eh, not so much.
That having been said, it never fails to irk me how Microsoft manages to treat me, the paying customer, like I’m some sort of lowlife pirate criminal, through the magic of Microsoft Product Activation.
Lots of companies use some form of product activation to help to secure their intellectual property, and I have no real complaint with activation as a concept. I’d be happier if I didn’t have to do it, but I accept it as part of the price of doing business in the Information Age. It seems to me as though companies like Adobe and Apple have gotten product activation as good as it can get, allowing you to “commission” and “decommission” a computer at will so as to allow the software (or in the case of Apple, music) to be moved from one computer to another with relative ease and a minimum of migraine.
The majority of PC users come across Microsoft Product Activation once in their computer-using experience, if at all: the day they first turn on their new PC. If their new computer did not come pre-activated (as many do), they are prompted to activate their copy of XP, Vista or Microsoft Office, either over the Internet (fast and easy) or via the telephone (slow and painful). Either way, once they have successfully communicated with Microsoft, the activation is complete, and they need never think about it again.
Those of us who are constantly messing with our hardware–the geeks, the gamers, the gadgeteers, the consummate tinkerers–will face the specter of Product Activation entirely too many times during our relationship with a single computer, much less a cluster of them.
Microsoft’s contemporary operating systems are a little, well, paranoid. They feel very strongly about protecting the intellectual property rights of their parent company. Who can blame them? Windows was a mammoth undertaking, representing untold millions in development costs. Trying to imagine the countless hours it took to pry this software Titan out of Bill Gates’ bulging forehead is like trying to count the stars. So Windows XP is quite protective. It understands that the end user has the right to own and use a single copy of Windows for each license (s)he purchases, no more. This individual license is tied to the machine on which it resides, not the user. In the case of a license that was purchased as part of an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) system–in other words, a pre-built PC purchased from a vendor as opposed to a standalone copy of Windows XP bought without a computer–probably the most common form of Windows XP license out there, the license is even less portable, perfunctorily tied to a single, individual computer over the lifetime of the license. That is to say, the purchaser of the license may not move this copy of Windows XP from one computer to another, even if (s)he removes it completely from the original computer. Even if, say, the original computer has been rendered nonfunctional through hardware failure, fire, earthquake, blood, frogs, boils, cattle disease, whatever. In practice, Microsoft is far less draconian in the enforcement of these rules, but the policy is there.
To enforce this policy, the Windows OS looks for changes in the basic hardware structure of your computer every time you log on. If a “significant” proportion of your computer’s hardware changes, Windows is likely to interpret the revised system as being a “new” computer, and ask you to reactivate your license. The algorithm by which the OS determines what constitutes a significant change is a bit wonky, at times even anal. Nonetheless, if all that was required to accomplish the reactivation was for Windows to do a quick shout out to the mother ship, this would be naught but a minor inconvenience for me. However, there’s a wild card thrown in just to make things more exciting: a maximum number of reactivations over a given period of time.
I’ve read a number of different and often conflicting accounts of the factors involved in determining both the need for product reactivation and whether a user has exceeded the maximum number of reactivations. I’m sure some of my more savvy friends will be able to chime in on this subject, and I welcome them to do so. The actual numbers involved, while an interesting question, are largely immaterial in this case. The only factor I feel is truly germane to this diatribe is as follows:
The act of adding a TV tuner card to my computer should not require me to reactivate my copy of Windows. Barring that, being forced to reactivate my copy of Windows because I added a TV tuner card to my computer should not result in my being told that I have exceeded the maximum number of reactivations.
One. Lousy. TV Tuner. Not a processor, not a hard drive, not even a new video card. This is like being told you have to reapply for your car insurance policy because you hung some fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror. This was annoying, but if I had just been able to do the activation over the Net like a normal tool-using hominid it would not have been a big deal. But no, I also managed to exceed the number of reactivations I could do online, so I had to contact Microsoft’s Activation Center by phone. Hmm, funny how it was XP’s own extra-paranoid reaction to a minor upgrade to my system that tipped my maximum number of reactivations over the edge. Why, the only thing funnier would be if, after I called the toll-free number and entered the forty-two digit transaction number into Microsoft’s automated system, said system had hung up on me. But Fate wouldn’t be that cruel to me, now would it?
Fifteen minutes and forty two more digits later I managed to get hold of an actual person–an actual Indian person, but a polite and attentive Indian person–at the Product Activation call center, and after making me promise that I had not installed this copy of Windows on any other computers, she gave me a new forty-two digit installation ID to enter into the Product Activation screen and be on my way.
That’s the thing I find particularly amusing and irritating in this process; the part about making me pwomise that I’m not running this same license of XP on hundreds of computers in some vast bunker of illicit technology somewhere. They know I’m not running multiple copies; at least, someone at Microsoft knows. If I were running multiple computers on this license key, Microsoft would know about it because the license key for your installation of Windows XP is transmitted during the activation process. That’s how the company has identified certain commonly-abused license keys for their software, and prevented them from being able to access Windows Update.
So if I were using a pirated key, they’d know. And if I had used my license key on multiple computers, they’d know. Unless of course I had availed myself of one of the myriad cracks and workarounds to keep my copy of Windows from being activated, or to spoof the activation process. In which case, why the hell would I be trying to activate this one copy on this one machine, either over the Internet or via the phone? Wouldn’t I just go and clone off one of the other machines in my gold farm or my offshore online casino or whatever it is they seem to suspect me of doing?
It’s almost seems that the activation process is designed, not to thwart actual pirates in the pursuit of their aims, but to instill the fear of the consequences of piracy in honest consumers. To make these potential pirates aware that, should they choose to violate the terms of their End User License Agreement, they will end up having to come in contact a real live person and lie to their face–okay, to their voice–about what they are doing. It’s an interesting exercise in social engineering, one that, I am certain, a bunch of talented specialists were paid handsomely to devise and vet. I am also certain that this process ultimately yields whatever results Microsoft is hoping to achieve; otherwise they probably wouldn’t be doing it. All it manages to do for me–the technically semi-savvy, typically law-abiding, high-volume computer consumer–is make me think twice about either a) upgrading my computer, b) purchasing more than the bare minimum of Microsoft-dependent hardware and/or c) maintaining my law-abiding status as regards my current Microsoft software. A customer who is treated like a criminal is more likely to become a future criminal than a repeat customer.
As a postscript to all this, allow me a moment to acknowledge something. I am fully aware that the experiences described herein are, at best, mewling protestations from a fat, overprivileged First World White Guy who has never suffered a single instance of true hardship or privation in his life. The Universe’s puniest tempest in the world’s most diminutive teapot. The worst moments of my life, my most agonizing pains, my most severe tribulations, so tiny in comparison to the least of the challenges facing the majority of the world’s population. I should be positively effusive in my gratitude to simply be sitting in a comfortable chair in a fully insulated and electrified house with an intact roof and a well-stocked larder, talking into a modern telecommunications device to someone halfway around the world, even if the topic of conversation is as banal as a series of numbers in six-digit clusters. Not to worry, I don’t have a hideously disproportionate sense of my own self-worth or the weight of my suffering in comparison to others. It’s just that this is the material I have to work with. If I spent too much time thinking about the overall condition of the world and my tacit participation in same, I would have long ago had my body ground into fertilizer, or perhaps butchered into its choicer cuts, and shipped to a struggling, infinitely more deserving family in some hardscrabble part of the world. And then someone else would have to sit here, thinking up shit to complain about. 😉