James O'Neill's Blog

October 18, 2007

Windows Activation (Server 2008 style)

One of the things we’ve done with Windows over the years is to try to make life a bit harder for people who pirate it. This isn’t just about protecting Microsoft’s revenue (or even keeping that revenue out of the hands of criminals) but investigations have found that pirates expose their “customers” to other risks: everything from dangerous electrical components to malware infestations. Our  targets are those who pirate in bulk rather than the person who sneaks a second copy for use at home. We know that there are keys out there that have been compromised and we invalidate them from time to time – which has caused grief for some legitimate customers whose systems have been built (or rebuilt) by someone who cut a corner and used a key they shouldn’t have. It’s also caused some real pirates to get reported.

Activation of Windows adds another layer of protection. When the system is activated it takes a snapshot of the hardware and if too many things change subsequently it requires re-activation. Of course if you rebuild the system that requires a second activation as well.
Internally Microsoft people can get product keys, but these are no different from the ones customers get. If I rebuild my system or change it it too radically then activation kicks in. And like a customer, I’ll get the message to say this product key has been used before.  For this reason I avoid activating machines until they get to the very end of their grace period (since there is a better than even chance demo machines won’t last any longer than that). But this morning my main Server-2008 machine ran out of time. So I went to activate it with my internally issued key and as expected, it tells me that key has been used. I have the luxury of getting another key, but since I’ve been asked about re-activation a number of times, I thought I’d go through the process that a customer would go through. So here are the steps

  1. Choose your country in the activation wizard and in the UK I get a Toll-Free phone number to call and an alternative number.
  2. Enter a 42 digit number on the telephone keypad… either the system can’t cope with Server 2008 or I mistyped because it told me the number was no good and transferred me to an operator
  3. After a short pause and some background noise that says “this call is going Off-shore” I get accented voice which confirms it. I’m not a fan of Off-shore call centres but if it’s a task which follows a script we should be fine
  4. I give the operator first part of my number. That number is too short to identify my specific copy of Windows (it’s possible that released software needs the full key) and I don’t have to tell him who I am.
  5. He asks a couple of questions, “How many other computers is this copy installed on” – “None. It was on this one, but I’ve reinstalled”, “Did the software come with the computer or did you buy it in a shop” “Neither, it was a beta”
  6. He reads me a 42 digit number. I feel sorry for the poor guy reading blocks of 42 digits out all day, asking the same couple of questions of anonymous people (some of whom will be annoyed at having to call).
  7. I click next, Windows says it has been activated and advises me to reboot to ensure all features are available.

Total time less than 5 minutes. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable imposition. I know there are people who don’t like it in principle, and I feel some sympathy with that. But the combination of decent length grace periods and taking as much pain as possible out of the manual activation process mean that it is not the horrendous business that some would have you believe.



This post originally appeared on my technet blog.


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