XP and a product key

What if you booted your PC, and it booted you back? That's what many Windows users dread these days. They've heard that service pack 1 for Windows XP 'phones home' -- and may refuse to install.

What if you booted your PC, and it booted you back?

That's what many Windows users dread these days. They've heard that service pack 1 for Windows XP "phones home" -- and may refuse to install.

Many of the fears are unfounded or the usual "I want Windows for free" hacker angst. But some of the concerns are real. Let's take a look, shall we?

Normally, an XP user installs SP1 using Windows Update or a physical CD. After upgrading to SP1, you may need to run XP's product activation routine. This would occur if you're setting up a new PC or if you've made more hardware changes to an existing XP machine than product activation allows.

If so, XP with SP1 transmits to Microsoft during the activation process the unique 25-character product key that's printed on the CD case.

In an interview, Allen Nieman, Microsoft's lead technical product manager for licensing technologies, said the company doesn't permanently store your key if Windows Update or product activation determines that it's legitimate. If an invalid key is found, however, he says the data is kept on file "as part of the error record".

Reader Jim Rohbock tested SP1 on a PC that he'd "cracked" via a method he found on the internet. The crack prevents XP from ever requiring activation.

Rohbock owns a paid, licensed key for his copy of XP. But SP1 disliked something and wouldn't install, saying, "The product key used to install Windows is invalid." SP1 will install over other cracks, but XP then requires you to activate within 72 hours. If you don't, your log-ons to XP will be disabled. This prevents running any applications.

According to Nieman, Microsoft has banned two codes that are all over the net. These particular numbers were internal to Microsoft, but got loose. He says these two keys now represent 90% of all bogus activations.

If you activated XP with one of these two keys, SP1 won't install, displaying the above message.

I have no sympathy for mass thieves who profit from copying. But Microsoft's capability to restrict PCs via the net terrifies many legitimate professionals who are just trying to do their jobs.

"My company has an Enterprise Agreement with MS -- I have a single key that I can install XP from, anywhere in the company (so several hundred IT people in the company have that key)," writes a member of InfoWorld's Corporate Advisory Board, who asked not to be named.

"We've confirmed that our key is available on at least one hacker site. I can't begin to imagine what would happen if MS (either on purpose or by mistake) added our key to this list, and we couldn't install SP1."

Nieman notes that the activation process is waived for site licensees. But a logic bomb is present. While emphasising, "We have no plans to do so," he says, "If we decide to put a third key in the file, SP1 would act [on it] the same way as today."

Send tips to contributing editor, Livingston. He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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