What’s Windows Product Activation?

Posted on January 8, 2009 by Daniel Petri in Windows Client OS with 0 Comments

What is Microsoft (or Windows) Product Activation (or WPA for short)?

Windows Product Activation (or WPA) is Microsoft’s attempt to make sure that one copy of Windows XP is used on only one box. More specifically, to ensure that each CD-key is used to install Windows XP on only one box. It makes up a string based on the hardware you’re running and asks that you register that string with your CD-key at MS. This means that if you change your hardware too dramatically, you are forced to re-activate Windows.

Product Activation technology is being included in several Microsoft products, including Microsoft Office XP and Windows XP. This technology is aimed at reducing software piracy as well as ensuring that Microsoft’s customers are receiving the product quality that they expect.

There are many forms of piracy, including counterfeiting, hard disk loading, and Internet pirating. The goal of Product Activation is to reduce a form of piracy known as “casual copying” or “softlifting.” Casual copying is the sharing of software between people in a way that infringes on the software’s end user license agreement (EULA). An example of casual copying is if someone were to obtain a copy of Office XP and load it on his or her PC, then share it with a second person who loaded it on his or her PC, and so on. This form of piracy has been estimated by some industry trade groups to account for a staggering 50 percent of the economic losses due to piracy.

You can copy your CD of Windows XP and pass it out to 10 of your friends, you can use the same CD-key on all 11 installations. The first one to activate will work, the other 10 will stop working after a month. Thus, piracy is reduced.

For large corporations that wish to roll out XP on thousands of boxes this might be quite a problem, since they usually use network shares and install Windows on every computer in their company using the same CD-key. Thus, MS created a strain of XP that did not require activation. This version is usually called a “Corporate Edition” of Windows XP.

As luck would have it, software pirates all over the world are passing around one of the first corporate versions of Windows XP (known as “Devilsown or Devils0wn”), and so this single copy (with it’s single CD-Key) can be found on hundreds of thousands of computers all over the world. Thus, piracy is reduced only amongst the non-warez-savvy. Typically, WPA will only affect legitimate customers, who are frustrated because Windows stopped working after they installed their new HP CD-Burner.

So if you want to sell or buy a copy of XP, make sure it’s a virgin copy that’s never been activated. Once deflowered, it’s worthless to the buyer.

In general, Windows XP is licensed for use on a single PC. It cannot be installed on more than one PC without purchasing additional licenses. Office XP is similarly licensed, however Office XP allows for a second installation on a portable device for the exclusive use of the person who is the primary user of the first copy.

Windows XP retail products contain software-based product activation technology, which means you need to activate your copy of Windows XP in order to use it. Some new PCs purchased with Windows XP pre-installed will also require activation. If your organization licenses Windows XP through one of Microsoft’s volume licensing agreement programs such as Open License and Select License, you will not be required to activate those Windows XP licenses. Microsoft Product Activation is an anti-piracy technology designed to verify that software products have been legitimately licensed. This aims to reduce a form of piracy known as casual copying. Activation also helps protect against hard drive cloning. Activation is quick, simple, and unobtrusive, and it protects your privacy.

Product Activation works by verifying that a software program’s product key has not been used on more personal computers than intended by the software’s license. You must use the product key in order to install the software and then it is transformed into an installation ID number. You use an activation wizard to provide the installation ID number to Microsoft either through a secure transfer over the Internet, or by telephone. A confirmation ID is sent back to your machine to activate your product.

The installation ID number includes an encrypted form of the product ID and a hardware hash, or checksum. No personally identifying data is included or required. The confirmation ID is simply an unlocking code for the Windows XP installation on that particular PC.

If you overhaul your computer by replacing a substantial number of hardware components, it may appear to be a different PC. You may have to reactivate Windows XP. If this should occur, you can call the telephone number displayed on the activation screen to reactivate the software.

Microsoft Product Activation (MPA) is designed to reduce software piracy. MPA is an umbrella term for technology such as Windows Product Activation (WPA) in Microsoft Windows XP and Office Activation Wizard (OAW) in Microsoft Office XP. For Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) licenses, MPA is a reinforcement of the End User License Agreement (EULA); each pre-installation is a single unit license that is not transferable to another computer. Products that include MPA technology need to be activated with the Microsoft License Clearinghouse. To track individual licenses, standard installations of MPA-enabled product requires a unique Product Key. Microsoft is committed to the protection of intellectual property rights and to the reduction of software piracy. MPA is one way in which Microsoft is working toward this commitment.

MPA is designed to stop a form of piracy that is called casual copying. Casual copying is the sharing of a single license for a product across multiple, unlicensed installations.

For example: A customer purchases a copy of Windows XP and installs it on their computer. This customer then loans the media to a neighbor, who installs it on their computer. The second installation is not legitimate and MPA is designed to prevent that unlicensed use.

MPA works by activating product in accordance with the EULA that comes with the purchase of genuine Microsoft product. An important point to make is that product “activation” is not the same as product “registration” (even though they share user interface space in Office XP). Activation is designed to authenticate and activate the software package. This process does not require any personally identifiable information to be provided by the user. If the user chooses, they can elect to register the product, and supply personal information. With the registration, they will be automatically notified of future updates and changes.

A user can run Windows for 30 days before they are required to activate the product upon their next logon procedure. In Windows, the user is reminded to activate in the manner described during the launch process with increasing frequency as they near the end of the 30-day grace period. If the user does not activate by the end of the grace period, they are required to do so upon the next logon procedure. Typical Windows functionality will not be accessible until activation is successfully completed.

Product activation is not the same as product registration. As discussed above, product activation is required and is completely anonymous. Product registration, on the other hand, is completely optional. You may opt to provide personal information, such as your e-mail address, for product registration purposes. Registration entitles you to receive information about product updates and special offers directly from Microsoft.

As described previously, activation can be anonymous with no personally identifiable information required to complete the process. One major difference between WPA and OAW is the way in which the grace period is handled. WPA requires activation after 30 days as opposed to Office XP which allows 50 launches of Office XP applications before activation is required.

To ensure the end user’s privacy, Microsoft uses a one-way mathematical algorithm to create the hardware hash used by Product Activation to create the Installation ID. Once created, the hash information cannot be calculated back to its original values. Hardware information is sent through the algorithm in the software on the PC—not at Microsoft—to create the hash. The raw hardware information is not known or sent to Microsoft. Ensuring end user privacy is a No. 1 design goal for Microsoft with Product Activation.

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