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WinXP activation harmless, cuddly, says MS chief. Again.

Tell the call centre the dog ate your Dell and they'll believe you. No, really...

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Microsoft Windows Product Activation chief Allen Nieman was in London this morning for city number five on his tour of Europe, evangelising his baby. WPA is simple, unobtrusive, doesn't invade your privacy, almost cuddly and much misunderstood, apparently.

Nieman's been telling everybody precisely this ever since WPA appeared in the WinXP beta programme, so the point of him coming to London to tell us all again wasn't entirely clear. And The Register disagrees about it being misunderstood - the problem for Microsoft is that people do understand it, but just plain don't like it. So really, it's Microsoft that's doing the misunderstanding.

But on this trip he came up with several useful facts, concessions or possibly hostages to fortune. Microsoft has already climbed down a fair bit on WPA. Yes, if you change your hardware too much after activating XP then you'll have to call up to reactivate, but the number of pieces of hardware you need to change to trigger this is now six, and the change counter resets every 120 days. So you can, if you want to and you are a dishonest person, install WinXP on a new machine every 120 days.

There will be no quibbles about this, says Nieman, with a sigh almost creeping into his voice. Microsoft's anti-piracy campaigning could be more successful "if it had a negative effect on the user, but we're going to err on the side of the user." And if you've got one of the OEM pre-activated versions of XP, then you can change practically anything you like on the machine, as here WPA only takes account of the bios - so you'd have to change motherboard and bios manufacturer in order to trigger a reactivate.

If these terms and conditions weren't liberal enough for you, Allen has more. The people on the other end of the phone when you have to call up to reactivate are going to be positive pussycats. Honest. What happens if you uninstall XP, throw away your old machine and install on a new one? What happens if you uninstall and sell it to somebody else - how do they activate? "If you phone and say you sold the product, you're going to tell me and I'm going to assume you're telling the truth." Allen didn't specificy how many times the call centre people were going to assume a particular individual was telling the truth, or indeed whether particularly flimsy stories (Martians kidnapped my Dell, this is the sixth time I've been burgled just this morning) would eventually trip the wire, but it really did sound like he meant these people would be pre-programmed to believe and accept absolutely anything.

We'll see. Nor does he see activation for a product ever expiring. He sees the phone systems still working for "seven to ten years" after the product's first out, or possibly a turn-off patch going out when Microsoft finally got bored of keeping them running. We might even get an unactivate routine (so you can move machines) in a service pack. The only nasty bit was that he wouldn't rule out Microsoft bombing compromised codes in service packs (it's done this at least once with Office). "If you use pirate software, you do so at your own risk," he says. But that's as sinister as it gets.

And on top of all this virtually complete lack of pain, aggravation and invasion of privacy, you have to bear in mind that 80 per cent of people will get their software preactivated, or via one of the corporate licence programmes where they don't have to activate, so it's really only a very small number of people who're barely going to be troubled at all by it.

So Allen, what's the point? Why has Microsoft put itself through all the grief of being misunderstood, having techies raging at it, being on the receiving end of paranoid privacy rants? Especially when WPA won't have the slightest effect in stopping professional pirates and the warez crowd. Allen concedes that escaped OEM versions (like the Dell one that was out immediately after XP RTMed) "will certainly become the pirate media of choice," but disputes that WPA is pointless, and will have no effect on copying.

He cites the results of the Australian pilot of WPA for Office 2000, saying licence sales there did go up, and also says that Microsoft research data showed that users weren't particularly inconvenienced by WPA.

But he doesn't seem to consider the possibility that Microsoft may have been measuring the wrong things, or consulting the wrong people, possibly at the wrong time. Microsoft UK's very own anti-piracy chief Julia "Auntie" Phillpot reckons illegal copying of Office is rife in small business, and unusually, we agree with her. Activating product is not going to be a problem for these people, but buying it is. There's quite a difference between running Microsoft applications software and only paying for, say, 20 per cent of it and having to stump up for the full 100 per cent, especially when you'll probably end up having to stump up full price for the latest version.

Businesses who've bumbled along casually copying and have therefore stuck with Microsoft software quite frequently won't have the budget for going legit at Microsoft prices, so they'll be inclined to take a look at cheaper or free alternatives. They won't in general go warez, because that would be stealing, and they don't tend to think of casual copying as stealing - more, sort of, borrowing. Microsoft might see some slight increase in licence sales for Office through WPA, but it could also find it's inadvertently given Sun and Corel a leg-up. ®

Related Stories:
MS starting to retreat on WinXP product activation
MS opens up on Whistler copy protection

SANS - Survey on application security programs

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