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MS loosens XP WPA some more, to offer upgrade to Pro

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Microsoft has wobbled some more on Windows Product Activation (WPA) in WinXP, but from where we're sitting it by no means looks like the final wobble. The company seems to have just about decided on the extent to which it will loosen up on WPA, and at the moment the bottom line appears to be that it will be practically no trouble at all for practically everybody.

But it's still going to be compulsory, it's still going bring more small businesses within the reach of Microsoft's policing systems, and it'll still strengthen the company's control of PC OEM and software distribution channels.

At the moment there are a couple of versions of the XP RTM version available in warez channels. These are claimed to have circumvented WPA, and there's no real reason to doubt this. There's also a leaked Dell OEM version which is said to install without WPA on Dell machines. In addition to this, WPA has been extensively documented, and a while back tecChannel showed how easily it could be fooled.

Shortly after this Microsoft intimated that it would loosen up on the number of hardware changes it would allow before you were required to reactivate the product, and that it would introduce a sort of statute of limiations whereby the whole thing zeroed after a given period, and you could start again.

It has now decided on these. You will be able to change up to six pieces of hardware so long as you have a network card installed, and this will reset after 120 days. It's not clear how many pieces of hardware you can change if you don't have a NIC, but presumably it'll be tighter, and the idea is to put the squeeze on grubby playground software swappers. The 120 day reset may be a loophole, but that depends on how Microsoft plays things at the server end.

Records of hardware changes on your local PC will expire after this period, but that doesn't automatically mean Microsoft is going to throw away its own records of the product key you used to activate it. So suggestions elsewhere that you could just install again on another PC after 120 days seem unconvincing to us. You could conceivably do some kind of back-up and restore number, this possibly depending on how similar the two PCs were, and this may also ease the situation of people using Ghost and similar. But we really need more information on precisely how this will be implemented before we can make a judgement.

OEM copies shipped with new PCs will be far more lax. Microsoft says this accounts for around 90 per cent of Windows licence sales, and that most of these will have WPA linked solely to the bios of the PC. So you can change anything you like without having to reactivate (or indeed activate, if the machine was one of the preactivated ones). This includes being able to change the motherboard so long as the board is from the same manufacturer, and presumably explains why the leaked Dell version installs without activation on Dell machines.

We can assume that PC OEMs will have to pay some sort of contractual price for the privileges of pre-activation and only having WPA linked to the bios, so it wouldn't be in the slightest bit surprising if the net effect was to increase the squeeze on small system builders and purveyors of the dreaded 'Naked PCs.'

Meanwhile, 'discounts' and easy-terms upgrades will be available for home users. If you've already got a copy of XP, then Microsoft is mooting a "Family Licence" system whereby you'll be able to get a discount of something like $8-$10 on further copies. One of the more underwhelming discounts de nos jours, this. But it gets better.

If you've got a Home edition of XP - which is quite probable if you bought one of the cheaper consumer-targeted PCs - then there will be a special upgrade deal for moving to XP Professional. It'll only cost you $125, which is a cracking $74 saving on the upgrade price to Pro. You might of course note that if you've bought a PC with XP Home preinstalled you've already paid for XP, and that the full versions of Home and Pro will be priced at $199 and $299 respectively at retail - a difference of $100, not $125, and most certainly not $199. That's right - it's one of those Microsoft special offers... ®

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