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WinXP WPA switch signals RTM is imminent

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One of the surest signs that Windows XP is close to RTM (Release to Manufacture) is that Microsoft has rejigged the Windows Product Activation (WPA) in the most recent beta build, 2542. The company is widely expected to sign off the final code within the next week, and in the run-up to this it makes sense (at least from Microsoft's point of view) to switch over from the more relaxed regime the beta testers have had to the real thing.

Prior to 2542 testers were able to use their product key for multiple installations, which of course makes sense for beta testers but isn't what Microsoft has planned for the finished product. Business users who buy XP via one of Microsoft's volume (five copies or more) licensing programmes won't have to activate machines individually, while home users will need to, and will have their software locked to a specific machine. Switching testers to this would cause serious inconvenience for them if the beta had much longer to go, so obviously it hasn't.

This system already operates for Office XP; leaked corporate unlock keys which activate the corporate edition without online checking with Microsoft have been around since OXP itself RTMed, but these keys don't work with the home version of OXP. It's probable that this will also apply to WinXP, and it's inevitable that shortly after WinXP RTMs the crackers will have cracks or workarounds for the finished product.

Microsoft can however slow this process down by keeping its cards close to its chest for as long as possible, and by keeping a lid on 'magic' corporate keys (if they're going to exist) until the last minute. This week's switch therefore indicates that the last minute is almost upon us. Testers are having to use new keys, which presumably means the ones that leaked out of the beta programme no longer work, and that the warez people will be needing some new leaks, and probably some new cracks.

This will only slow them up a little, but provided XP does go gold next week, the PC companies could be shipping machines with it preinstalled by late September, a month ahead of the official October 25th launch. ®

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