Microsoft listens to XP antipiracy criticism

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."

Microsoft said it has continually approached the product activation software with privacy in mind. The activation process is done anonymously and is not related to the product registration process, which asks users to register their personal information with Microsoft. Users are only asked to enter the country they live in so they can receive the correct phone number to call when activating the software by phone, Microsoft has said. The process will also work over the Internet.

To make that even more clear, Microsoft said Thursday it will change the presentation of the product activation software in the final version of Windows XP when it is released on Oct. 25, so that it is not confused with the registration process.

"We wanted to make the distinction between the activation process and the registration process," Gravning said. "We did some polishing to the user interface just to make it easier for customer."

Users will be able to use Windows XP for 30 days before they will be forced to activate the product. Until a user activates the software a screen will appear prompting the process. As a user nears the end of the 30-day window, the prompt will appear every 15 minutes while the program is running, Microsoft said.

If it is not activated in that time, the software reverts to a print-and-view only version.