July 20, 2001, 11:01 AM — Microsoft Corp. is altering the antipiracy technology in the forthcoming version of its Windows operating system, responding to critics who argued that it will unfairly hinder users who change the configuration of their computer.
Windows Product Activation, a technology first tested in Microsoft's Office product two years ago to cut down on the casual sharing of software, has been included in test versions of its upcoming Windows XP operating system to prevent it from being installed on multiple computers.
The activation process works by "locking" the software to the configuration of a computer and the 25-character product identification number included with each version of the software. Before the changes announced Thursday, if a user had altered the configuration of a computer too drastically -- installing a new hard drive, for instance -- Windows would have thought it was being installed on a new machine, requiring the user to re-activate the software by reporting the changes to Microsoft.
The technology, intended to cut down on the US$12 billion lost worldwide to piracy each year, drew the ire of many users who commonly upgrade the hardware on their PCs.
"This was based on feedback that we've been getting from the users testing Windows XP," said Charmaine Gravning, a product manager with the Windows XP division.
A major change that the software maker has made to the activation tool, which has been included in Release Candidate 1 of the operating system, allows users to make a certain amount of hardware changes to their computer and re-activate the software without having to notify Microsoft.
"We're giving users a time frame (from when they first activate the operating system) where they could do a certain number of changes," Gravning said. The company has not yet determined how many times a user will be permitted to reactivate their software in this way, or how long the window will last, she said.
But the new process does have some holes. Microsoft confirmed that a user could theoretically install the software on a separate machine and re-activate it under the guise that it is the same computer with a new configuration. "That would be illegal though," Gravning noted.
For those who don't make major overhauls to their computer system, the product activation software hasn't had much of an impact on their decision as to whether to upgrade to the new operating system.
"I think that Microsoft did a pretty good job of convincing us that it will not be difficult or very odious to do," said Butler Crittenden, president of the San Francisco PC Users Group. "I can't see an instance where it would be too inconvenient."