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Row breaks out over Product Activation

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Microsoft's Product Activation technology has triggered a row in the company's official Whistler beta newsgroups, with testers threatening defection to Linux or piracy over the matter. The irate testers - who, as far as we know, haven't actually been hit by a real live Product Activation Whistler build yet - seem to have been sent further up the wall by the intervention of a Microserf, who referred them to a couple of FAQs on the site.

But from the look of the FAQs, this is perfectly understandable. Microsoft - as it pitched to The Register a couple of weeks back - is going to great lengths to stress that Product Activation is easy, takes hardly any time, and doesn't violate your privacy. But from the hardware freak's standpoint, this isn't anywhere near the point. They are concerned about needing to get a new activation key every time they change their hardware, about not being able to run dual boot systems with more than one copy of the OS, and about not being able to have several installations going at the same time.

As far as we can gather right now multi-boot systems probably can run off the same key, but it's being claimed they won't if you use different hard drives, as the hard disk ID is said to be a component of the unique hardware key.

And although having several installations going at the same time might strike you as plainly and obviously illegal, if you think about it this is the kind of scenario a diligent beta tester, a diligent Whistler beta tester, would be likely to get into. It'd be seriously dumb for Microsoft to lock the beta (the technical one, if not the expected widespread one) with Product Activation, even if the company is keen to get the system thoroughly tested.

The FAQs do however flesh out Microsoft's plans for Product Activation, and make it clear how tightly the company wants to control the use of its products. Volume licensed versions (five copies or more, available to businesses or families) won't be locked, but otherwise you get 50 goes for Office before Activation is compulsory, and 30 days use for Whistler.

The 'laptop copy' licence is also pretty clearly defined. It is permitted to install a second copy of application software on your laptop, but not if that software came bundled with a PC. For Windows itself, it's a big fat no: "In the case of the Windows operating system, the Microsoft EULA allows installation on one PC only."

There's what we think is a bit of a soft-shoe shuffle on the Ts & Cs of the EULA (End User Licence Agreement), as the FAQ airily states that it has "been in place for more than ten years." This kind of implies that there's been no change in that period, whereas there's been at least a de facto tightening.

Laptop and/or multiple computer use is quite probably going to be one of the really big irritants of Product Activation. Whatever the EULA actually says (does anyone, apart from poor, dumb journalists and lawyers, read it?) most people think it's perfectly reasonable and morally just for them to be able to install the software on as many computers as they like provided they only use one of them at a time. The desktop-laptop combo is the absolute minimum here, and if/when this is physically blocked by Product Activation, people really will start shouting Linux and pirate copies.

One could of course muse as to how one could obtain two computers and one operating system in a world where Microsoft is trying to stamp out "naked PCs," but it happens with hardware freaks and with upgrades, so it's going to be an issue for some.

We also see a signpost that there will be a new kind of apartheid in the PC OEM market. "Some PC manufacturers," it says, "will activate the Microsoft software in the factory so the end user does not have to do so." And some, consequently, won't.

In previous revs of Microsoft's anti-piracy activities the kind of setup and the kind of media the OEMs have been allowed to ship has varied depending on the deal they got, how important they are, and the level of protection they shipped the software with. It's not obvious what the difference between OEMs who can ship pre-activated software and those who can't will be, but suspicious minds at Redmond may be something to do with it. After all, as PC companies ship a lot of machines that are identical, one ID per batch would work.

Curiously, the final FAQ in one of the Microsoft documents isn't a Q that you'd think was being that F Aed right now: Has Product Activation got anything to do with Microsoft.NET?

Here's the answer, which we think boils down to Yes, and some: "Anti-piracy technologies, such as Microsoft Product Activation, balance both the needs of consumers in acquiring the content they want, and the rights of content owners to protect the distribution of their works. In a .NET environment, where digital content and services are accessed on a variety of devices that communicate with each other, the protection of digital content must accompany the facilitation of Internet services. Such a seamless interaction is at the heart of the Microsoft .NET intellectual property protection vision."

Note that what Microsoft is talking about here is not protection of its own application and operating software IP, as is the case with Product Activation, but of digital content in general. We foresee the return of the tollgate vision, and await Microsoft's next stabs at its construction with interest. ®

Related stories:
MS opens up on Whistler copy protection

Microsoft FAQs:
FAQs
Fact sheet

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