WinXP beta testers still in open revolt over product activation

And is there maybe some sign of MS wavering?


Microsoft still hasn't been able to sell its Product Activation protection scheme to its own beta testers, judging by some of the recent traffic in the Windows XP private beta newsgroups. Transcripts obtained by The Register indicate continuing hostility (as you might expect from techies), and even seem to signal that the Microsoft staff minding the newsgroups aren't altogether enamoured of the system either.

One tester has apparently been thumping a tub (an eminently sensible one) for some time: "I am still imploring you at MS to put a deactivation feature in the OS. That feature alone would make a lot of the people currently unhappy with the activation scheme much happier."

This really does sound like a good idea that would go some way towards removing one of Product Activation's major negatives, and would also incidentally show .NET technology doing something useful. If you're changing your hardware, then the key you got when you first installed XP probably won't work on the new hardware, so you could log in and deactivate, then once you'd got the new hardware up and running you'd just activate again, as you had on the first install.

As the evangelist goes on: "1. User knows they are going to make a major hardware change (new MB and HD at once, etc). They can simply deactivate, change hardware, and reactivate when done. All done over the net, no phone calls to MS in most cases, and very little hassle to the end user."

Case two makes sense to him, to other techies, and no doubt to most ordinary users too. But it's less likely to make sense to Microsoft. Why? Think 'Naked PC,' but we'll elaborate in a moment. He says: "User buys/builds a new machine. They want to put XP on the new machine, and put something else on the old machine (as they only have one XP license). User deactivates the old install and puts whatever other OS they want on there. Puts XP on new machine, and activates. No explaining to MS why it is different, etc. Can do the activation over the net, why? Because they deactivated the old one - so no conflict in the activation database."

The reason that doesn't make sense to Microsoft, or at least the sales and marketing people in Microsoft, is because of the way Windows has over the years transformed itself from a product that you could buy along with a PC if you wanted to one that is somehow inextricably (and these days, by licence agreement) chained to a specific piece of hardware. Microsoft discourages OEMs from selling 'Naked PCs,' that is PCs that don't have operating systems preinstalled, but really PCs that don't have Windows installed, on the basis that these encourage piracy.

But actually it's pretty handy financially to be able to tithe every PC that goes out the door with a new Windows licence fee, no matter how many such licences the purchaser has already.* What the guy in the newsgroup is advocating, however, sounds dangerously like allowing the punters just to buy a new copy when they needed it. Trust us, this one won't fly.

But even going that far still seems to be only half the loaf, from the critics' point of view. It still doesn't work with users who "don't want to activate regardless, and won't buy the OS if they have to." Nor will it work in cases of sudden irretrievable crashes, because you obviously wouldn't have known to deactivate beforehand.

The author doesn't actually expect Microsoft to act on his suggestions, and has clearly been given the brush-off before. "I'm sure you will still say 'not for this version of windows', but I truly believe you need to reconsider. It would greatly increase the public's perception and acceptance of this feature, and at the same time provide MS the same functionality with less headache on the end user."

Gerald Maffeo of Microsoft replied as predicted, but with some hope for the future: "Thanks for the suggestion. We will likely implement this in future versions." This prompted an angry response: "We are not at the RC stage, we're not even at Beta 2 [actually we might be, within hours]... Why not do it now, why wait for a future release to put something that should had been done with the first draft of the whole process? Till a deactivation feature is integrate to Whistler, or whatever other future version, my recomendation to my customer will be stick with what you have, or upgrade to W2K, but stay away from Whistler, even if it's a very good OS, the activation process is too much trouble for wathever good the OS will give you in return."

Maffeo's response is actually quite enlightening: "Much as I'd like to be able to address this now, we simply do not have the cycles. I definitely have it on my list of items to consider for the next version. There's obviously a lot of support for it!"

Not being in the beta newsgroup, The Register is unable to come up with any kind of estimate of the level of support for muting Product Activation, and we'll just have to accept Maffeo's word that there's "a lot." It's also interesting that at least the guy who minds the newsgroup for Microsoft seems to have been convinced.

And of course, "we simply do not have the cycles" simply reinforces what we've been saying for quite some time now. Windows XP is not a beta as a beta would traditionally be understood. In proper betas, you check the code until its done, as you get closer to a finished product you go for release candidates, RC1, RC2, RC3, and while you might have an approximate schedule you'd like to achieve, you don't have specific dates in your diary.

Microsoft does have dates, does have a fall sales window to make, and it's not about abandon them so it can add in a lot of extra coding work to deal with deactivation/reactivation. But it could still pull Product Activation, or maybe mug it to death in some less obvious way. More of that later, maybe... ®

Related story:
MS testers shout 'Linux!' over Whistler copy protection


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