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MS Windows licences shrink to barcodes – unique IDs here we come?

OEMs bravely give in, and sell birthright for a mess of discounts. Again.

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Updated, seriously What's rumour in one part of the world or the channel sometimes turns out to be done and dusted elsewhere, and so it is with the Microsoft 'barcode the Windows licence onto the PC" plan we reported on earlier today. Quantities of readers from numerous parts of the world report that it's been going on for varying amounts of time, and it's a dead cert that whatever companies are left not doing it will have to start from their next OEM licence review.

The system has already been spotted on Compaq, Dell, Siemens-Fujitsu, Gateway, IBM and HP machines, and the time it's been running seems to vary on where you are in the world. As for whether the IDs are uniquely linked to PCs or not, one corporate customer in the Netherlands says that the development is at least pointed in that direction: "Info from Dell suggests there's a check on the system type in the setup (if wrong type, setup doesn't run) coupled to something (number range? checksum?) that checks if the supplied SN is appropriate for that type of system."

As he says, this kind of system could work where large numbers of identical systems are shipped, but gets more complex, and perhaps unworkable, in cases where no two systems are the same. The earlier recovery CD procedure does check the system type and fails if it's wrong, but doesn't drill down any further than that.

But a teacher reader provides a worthwhile antidote to conspiracy theory: "Now all students can easily copy our code to make their pirate copies at home work." If he's speaking from bitter experience then this is one of those wonderful Microsoft planning screw-ups rather than a genuinely operational world-domination plot, but as yet we haven't confirmed it.

A reader in Japan has more useful information on timescales, purpose and effect. Dell, he says, introduced it with the Win2k launch, and extended it to all shipping versions of Windows in July. Dell units coming out of Ireland were scheduled to conform to the new system during the summer, so it may be the UK's just catching up. And here's the good bit: "OEM vendors will no longer be provided with distribution media by Microsoft. Instead, they will be responsible for printing and licensing their own media. Furthermore, this media will not be identified as a Microsoft product. Instead, the backup media will be called "Company X Windows Whatever Product Recovery CD" (ie., Dell's Windows 2000 is labelled Dell Windows 2000 Product Recovery CD)."

Note how cunningly Microsoft has shunted the costs of media, printing and support onto the OEM. Who you gonna call? Presumably Redmond's phone number isn't on the sticker. The OEMs are also required to ensure that protection on their CDs stops them being installed on anything but licensed PCs, and presumably the OEM bears the cost of this as well.

Why do the OEMs put up with all this? Well, you've heard this one before. In the case of Dell (described memorably by our informant as "the biggest piglet on the Wintel tit") substantial discounts in exchange for agreement are a major hook, as is the happy side-effect to the scheme (for a big OEM like Dell) of driving smaller outfits out of the market. Licences are now sold in large blocks, rather than small units, so the upfront cost is greater, and the print costs hit the smaller guys disproportionately.

You heard this one before, of course, in the trial documentation covering the introduction of the "Windows Experience" and much else. Then, Microsoft offered the big boys extra discounts and subsidies in consideration of the fact that they'd have to bin all their lovingly-crafted install procedures in order to conform to the new licence Ts & Cs that gave MS absolute control of desktop real estate and installation. There was some minor resistance from a few tiers down the management structure in some companies, but the upshot was that the OEMs bravely sold the pass. And hey, here we go again...

As our earlier story has been largely superceded, we've reproduced it for reference below:

MS planning to give PCs unique Windows IDs?
Microsoft is planning to dump the "book and certificate" licensing system for PCs and switch over to a bar code or licence code on a sticker on the PC, or even screen printed onto the PC, according to sources in the UK channel. The move, if it happens, would tie a particular copy of Windows to a particular machine even more closely than is already the case, would make it even easier for the company to run Windows as a 'tax' on each and every new PC, and would make the resale of OEM copies of Windows even more impossible than it is now.

So although we don't have any hard evidence, it certainly sounds true. A move like this would effectively just be an incremental step on from the situation as it is. Microsoft has moved over from allowing the distribution of full, installable operating software with new PCs to having the distribution files protected on the machine's hard drive. Some PC OEMs can ship CDs with their machines, but these are recovery CDs designed to put the machine back into the state they were in when they first shipped.

In the event of a catastrophic failure this is a severe inconvenience for the user, who has to put the OS back onto the machine and then apply all the service packs and various pieces of personalisation they'd installed before the crash, but it's very useful from Microsoft's point of view. The recovery CD will only work with that particular class of machine, so you can't just take one from, say, a ThinkPad and pirate it straight onto a Tosh.

An obvious development of this if a particular copy of Windows' licence code were to be linked with a specific PC is that Microsoft could ensure that the software only ran on one machine. You couldn't even use the software from one ThinkPad on another.

There are obvious technical difficulties in execution here, because obviously the OEM is going to have to be able to print the right unlock code onto the right machine, but there are advantages - again, for Microsoft. If this can be done, then it should make it easier to audit the number of OEM copies of Windows that are actually distributed by a given vendor, and make it harder for outfits to tell lies to Microsoft about this. So no more of these tedious press releases commencing "Microsoft takes legal action against software pirates in Missouri" (whatever will the marketing department find to do with itself?).

If the system were properly set up, it would also make it extremely dangerous to allow your OEM distribution media to leak onto the pirate market, because those unlock codes would point, unmistakably, at you. And lastly, further tightening up on serial numbers is probably a privacy own-goal waiting to happen. But they never think about that until it does, do they? ®

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