Microsoft releases details on Vista activation

Microsoft releases details on Vista activation

Summary: Almost a year to the day after releasing Windows Vista to manufacturing, Microsoft has finally released a document outlining some of the technical details behind Vista's product activation. Most of the information merely confirms what Windows experts already knew, but one detail is surprising: For the first time, Microsoft has confirmed that it limits the number of times a system can be reactivated over the Internet. I've got the details.


For nearly a year, Microsoft has refused to release technical details of the changes it made to its Product Activation technology in Windows Vista. The company was more than willing to speak in broad terms about the program and how it works, but it kept the details confidential, classifying them as trade secrets.

Until last week, that is. A newly released Technical Market Bulletin entitled Product Activation for Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 unexpectedly appeared on Microsoft's Download Center last week. Curiously, the document was dated September 2007, but the Date Published field indicates that it was kicking around internally for more than a month before being officially released.

The document is similar in many respects to the Technical Market Bulletin: Microsoft Product Activation for Windows XP (Word .doc format), released in August 2001, before the launch of Windows XP, and updated in 2002 after Microsoft made some activation changes in XP Service Pack 1.

Historically, the underlying principle of Product Activation has been simple: You can reinstall Windows on the original hardware as many times as you like and activate it automatically over the Internet. You need to reactivate over the phone if the hardware is substantially changed. That's been the hard-and-fast rule for more than six years.

With that history in mind, I was surprised (to put it mildly) when I read this sentence on the next-to-last page of the Vista activation bulletin:

Reinstallation of Windows Vista or Windows Server 2008 on the same or similar hardware and a subsequent reactivation can be accomplished five times.

If that's true, it's a major change in policy for Microsoft. I went back through all my notes and records looking for any indication that this policy has been announced previously and found nothing. So I contacted Microsoft to get an explanation and got an impressively rapid response from Alex Kochis, Senior Product Manager in the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) group. His blunt response: "There has been no meaningful policy change. We need to correct that paper."

The new activation document, it turns out, is missing some crucial details. A more complete description of the actual activation policy is found at the bottom of Microsoft's Windows Vista Activation FAQ:

How many times can I activate Windows Vista?

Windows can be activated any number of times, but your re-activation experience will vary based on the way you acquired Windows.

If you acquired Windows Vista via retail purchase (boxed product), you may activate via the Internet the first five times. Subsequent activations are allowed but must be completed via telephone.

If you acquire Windows Vista pre-installed on a computer, re-installation would not require additional activation steps unless significant hardware changes were made.

And even that description, Kochis explains, is potentially misleading. The policy allowing five automatic activations over the Internet has been in place for the past year, but it's subject to change at any time. The real goal, it turns out, is to block hackers who try to spoof parts of the hardware ID so that multiple systems can appear identical when they check in with Microsoft's activation servers. In that scenario, the server logs for a single product ID might show hundreds or even thousands of activation requests, leading to a requirement that the system be activated over the phone. In that scenario, a customer service representative can confirm that the activation request is legitimate.

For systems sold from large manufacturers (Dell, HP, Sony, and the like), activation is accomplished using a separate check called OEM Activation 2.0. If you reinstall Windows using the original media, activation should never be required unless the motherboard is replaced with one from a different manufacturer. The limit of five reactivations should only apply to retail copies, and then it will likely affect only hard core enthusiasts who repeatedly reinstall and attempt to reactivate retail copies.

If you fall into the latter category, here are three pieces of advice to avoid being bitten by activation hassles:

1. Take advantage of the initial 30-day grace period before activating. Delay activation until you're satisfied that all hardware and software are working as you intended.

2. Use an image backup program like Vista's Complete PC Backup (found in the Business and Ultimate editions) or a third-party alternative like Acronis True Image. After installing Windows and all current updates (including drivers), complete activation and then use the backup program to create a snapshot of the drive. If you ever need to reinstall, you can do so easily with that image, which won't require reactivation if it's restored to the original hardware.

3. If you're such a fanatic that you install Windows more than five times a year, get a TechNet Plus subscription. For $299, you get a one-year subscription that includes perpetual licenses for every version of Windows Vista (including Ultimate), Windows XP Professional, Microsoft Office, and a slew of server software and tools. The licenses aren't valid for business use, but you can install and use each product on up to 10 separate machines for evaluation purposes, and the licenses don't expire even if you choose not to renew your subscription after the first year.

I'll have more details from this new technical bulletin, including a rundown on the activation changes between XP and Vista.

Topics: Microsoft, Hardware, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

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  • I Can Reinstall Ubuntu All I Want

    And don't get charged a thing, or treated like a criminal by MS tech support when I call them either having to explain "Why am I needing to reactivate my key!?!?"
    • I have Ubuntu too.

      But wireless card refuse to work no matter what I do or try. I can't find any good games for Ubuntu, but I have a lot of Windows games.

      I do truly like Ubuntu but they do need to improve thier driver and game support.
      • Gaming on Linux

        For your Windows games to run on Linux, visit this link and check out Cedega. Cedega is a commercial re-implementation of the Windows API for Linux with a focus on gaming. Similar to (and a derivative of) WINE.

        Can't help with your wireless card though. Have you tried anything from this site?:

        • I Must Be Not Looking In The Right Place

          Is there a link on the site that tells you what games will play on it?

          Something I'm sure we'd all like to know.
          • Nevermind, Found It!!

            Go to the actual product site:

        • Something I'm Confused About

          It seems I have to pay a monthly fee to use the Cedega software? Is that true or is it just a fee to get the latest updates?

          Would be nice if they offered this for free.
          • Ugh, I agree with itanalyst

            [i]It seems I have to pay a monthly fee to use the Cedega software?[/i]

            This was my understanding too. Why would I pay a monthly fee to play the games I've purchased when my Vista partition plays them just fine? Add on to that the fact that, from what I've read, Cedega doesn't work with all games and doesn't work perfectly with some of the ones it claims to be compatible with, and I have to give it a pass.
          • It's A Good Start Though

            Linux wasn't the greatest when it first came out...maybe this should be given some time...

            I might dual partition my XP MCE box and put this on the other partition and see if my games will work effectively on it...

            Would be neat if it did.
          • Wine

            Try using WINE, it's free. I don't know how well it works for all games but on my Kubuntu box it runs Sim City 4 perfectly.
          • I feel your pain...

            "Ugh, I agree with itanalyst"

            Dude, I know that has to hurt. But if it makes you feel any better, he is still arguing that he is happier not playing his games and you are playing yours fine.
          • You pay for the first...

            3 months up front. and can quit any time after that. The subscription gets you updates and a number of votes to choose the next title they work to support. If you so choose you can pay extra for more votes. If you quit the service your Cedega still works but you get no further updates to support more games.
            Hrothgar - PCLinuxOS User
          • Cedega needs to buy their butter too, you know.

            BTW: I tried using it. Okay, this was 2 years ago, but as with every other Windows emulator, it did not work with my apps.

            So I'm still Windows-based. Plan to be for some time.
      • I have Ubuntu too.

        Same here I have Ubuntu On a Vaio laptop and Kubuntu on a Powerbook Bronze G3 and G4 Graphite Tower.. Would Kill to get the wireless working on these compters. It the only problems since I do not play games.
        • Wireless...

          Check out madwifi. I have several Atheros based Wifi adaptors and the madwifi drivers work like a charm. I think I got them from the packman repositories.
    • Yeah! (snort) and DOS 3.2 too!

      And you don't have to screw with GNU's and crap...
      I've called MS to activate dozens and dozens of copies of windows... never been treated like a criminal. Never had to explain anything. Maybe its your M.O. ... Have you actually called them? Or are you an expert by hearsay and speculation, as many of the Linux Apostles around here seem to be? I think its pretty cheap of them to attach the license of the OS to the motherboard, but the activation FUD is baloney.
  • Or just get another operating system

    that doesn't make you go through this crap.
    • Or just make the call.

      It is no big Whoop!
      • Why bother?

        It's not worth the time. All that trouble and it's still just the same copy of Windows you already paid for.

        Imagine every time you had your car worked on you had to call the manufacturer to prove you still owned the car. It's retarded...but apparently okay with Windows users.

        Maybe MS should start shipping a bike helmet with it? lol. Okay, that's mean. But any way you try to spin it, MSFT is making piracy your problem to solve.
        • Every time?

          Where do you get this "every time" concept? Did you even read the article? At the worst, you would be able to reinstall 5 times before needing to call. What are you doing to your systems that require that many reinstalls? I have replaced hardrives and optical drives, upgraded video cards and motherboards, flashed BIOS, and added RAM, all with no issues. I support hundreds of systems, and not once have I had to call Microsoft to reactivate.

          So, once again, what are you doing to your systems to cause you so much trouble? Or, are you just like Ole Man, who states below: "It's more fun to gripe about than to use."
          • You just need to install the 6th time

            You don't need to change hardware. Changing hardware drastically may cause you to need to phone before the 5 limit.

            From what I gather with this article it's saying that hackers have found a way to copy legit hardware config codes and fake a install on thousands of machines. So to combat that you get 5 automatic online installs on the same hardware then you have to start phoning. If thousands start phoning in to activate the same hardware code then Microsoft know something is up and doesn't allow it after the first call they get in one day.