Last month I began hearing rumblings of problems with the product activation system in Windows Vista. Last week I got to see the problem firsthand. The bottom line? The simple act of updating some hardware drivers – without making any changes to the hardware itself – can result in the Software Protection Platform code in Windows Vista deciding that the system requires reactivation. And a simple Internet activation won’t do; you’ll need to call Microsoft’s activation hotline, enter your product ID over the phone, and then type in the 48–digit code the operator reads back to you.
Here’s a blow-by-blow account of the problem I encountered last week, all details of which have been confirmed by Microsoft:
A visit to Dell’s support website turned up a pair of recommended updates for the onboard Intel SATA controllers on my XPS 410 and XPS 210 systems. Running the first executable package copied the driver files to Vista’s driver store; the second installed the Intel Matrix Storage Console, which in turn updates the drivers and then provides information about installed SATA devices, allows you to set up RAID features, and helps manage RAID drives.
After completing the update on the first system, I was surprised when a pop-up message informed me that the system needed to be activated within three days. I followed the link to the online activation screen, which informed me that I had to phone in for activation. That process, while tedious, didn’t take long. I dialed a toll-free number, used the telephone keypad to punch in the digits showing on my screen, and then punched in a matching set of numbers a live operator read back to me. It all took just over five minutes.
When I updated the driver on the second system, I had to go through exactly the same song and dance. And just to confirm that the driver was the cause of the problem, I used System Restore to uninstall the new Intel driver and roll back to the default, Microsoft-supplied driver. Bingo. Reactivation required.
With the help of those Microsoft engineers, I learned that I’m not the only one experiencing this problem. Last month, when I first asked Microsoft for a comment on the story, David Lazar, who heads the Windows Genuine Advantage group, wrote back with this explanation, citing "a few open bugs that we have identified and are presently working to fix":
[S]ome hardware drivers can cause some systems to require activation multiple times. … The temporary fix is to telephone activate. We're working with vendors of the affected drivers to get updates out as quickly as possible. (As you know, manufacturers are continuously updating and releasing new device drivers.)
Again, we are actively working on the solutions and expect resolution shortly. Quality and customer service are our top priorities, and we continue to reduce our response time, and improve as we learn more since the release of Windows Vista.
Since that time, I’ve picked up a few more technical details. The problem occurs with the Intel driver because it reports the hard drive serial number in a different format than the Microsoft driver uses; as a result, the system thinks the hard drive has been changed. Couple that with a memory upgrade I did and it was enough to flag my system as “out of tolerance.”
The Intel driver isn’t the only one that has this problem, either. Apparently one or more storage drivers from Nvidia and Silicon Image are prone to the same glitch. In all cases, the only workaround is to reactivate after installing the new driver. That will be cold comfort for a small business that has to pay for several hours of time with their tech support consultant to manually activate an office full of Vista machines.
I know that Microsoft is working aggressively to resolve this system, both by convincing vendors to update drivers so they don’t break activation and by developing an update they can push down via Windows Update. Either of those solutions will take weeks or months, and in the meantime some early Vista adopters are going to be inconvenienced.
One more mitigating factor: This issue apparently only affects those who install Windows Vista using retail media. For the 90% or more of the Vista customer base who are getting OEM machines with Windows Vista preinstalled, this won’t be an issue, as OEM activations are tied to the system BIOS and activation status is only affected if you swap out a motherboard. This should also be a non-issue for corporate customers using volume licensing programs. But that leaves millions of retail customers, at least in theory, in the lurch. Not exactly the positive PR Microsoft needs right now.