Problems arise with Vista's activation system

Problems arise with Vista's activation system

Summary: 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. Some very common drivers from some big-name hardware vendors are the cause, and a fix could be months away.

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TOPICS: Windows, Microsoft
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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.

Windows Vista deactivated by an Intel driver

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.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft

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226 comments
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  • Ed - clarification

    Ed, you say this issue doesn't affect OEM systems (which was my understanding also) but in the image you show an OEM product key ... is the image purely "illustrative"?
    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • It's not an SLP installation

      This was an express upgrade, which uses retail media with a retail key, although it reports as OEM. The SLP copies are installed at the factory and locked to the BIOS.
      Ed Bott
  • One More VISTA/Microsoft Activation Farce

    After having to load Vista multiple times and go through multiple phone activations Microsoft said I'd had to many attempts and I needed to buy a new Vista package.

    I reloaded my XP Pro!!

    So much for MS support which I could barely understand anyways.What genius decided to ship support to India ??
    miketebo
    • I've made the same complaints for years

      Microsoft decided years ago to minimize their costs of support by taking advantage of 3rd world economics and exporting jobs out of the United States. I have, no lie, called more than a few times to India and I honestly had no idea what the guy was saying, not a word. Now it's not Microsoft's fault you can't understand or they can't tell you what the problem is, you called, they tried and well have a nice day. The genius behind this was Microsoft's board of directors who had a hen party, invited their employees to submit brainstorm ideas as to how to bring their operating costs down. Well, get rid of as many American employees as we can, find the cheapest labour and farm it out with an 800 number.
      They probably paid this genius a $ 10,000 bonus, wrote it off on their income tax as administrative fees. Hey, you agreed to the terms and conditions of you Windows license by activating Windows and if you read your license, you wouldn't know what you agreed to. Welcome to Microsoft.
      intrepi
      • Indians speak perfect English.

        Better than yours, I'll warrant, and admittedly better than mine. If I ever misunderstand a word of English spoken with an Indian accent, asking to repeat, more slowly, has always been sufficient.

        The problem here is the "switch off" approach to copyright enforcement instead of quietly implementing means of tracking known copies, and prosecuting the worst offenders. It isn't India's fault.
        Absolutely
        • Indians speak perfect English

          Yeah, right! Just dumb old Americans don't
          know how to speak English, eh?

          Speaking English has zilch to do with
          copyright enforcement. Your brain has a
          short connection.
          Ole Man
    • Buy again? Seems like breach of contract.

      If Microsoft told you to buy another package, doesn't that constitute a breach of the contract for retail purchase? Many states do not honor all the software disclaimers publishers have in their contracts. You may wish to check with your State Attorney General.

      Rather than force you to fork over your money a second time, Microsoft SHOULD have offered you a new copy on new media. They could still charge you copying costs (cost of a CD/DVD and postage). But, to tell a consumer to buy it again is unconcionable. I had the same problem with a Network Backup software. They also told me I would have to buy the product again. I told them to shove it! I eventually found my copy of the key, but I still will not use their software, anyway. I also told all my User Group members (http://www.pcug.us) about the respose from that company's support group. The result was that NONE of our members will buy that company's software.

      I am sure they noticed a slump in sales. We vote with our pocketbooks.

      I don't have the option to move everything to Linux because we test software for all platforms. Otherwise, I would consider it.
      pcug9
    • India Support

      This "Support in India" policy is to try curb costs.
      Viz. 10 support agents in India for 12 months costs less than Bill's tea lady/man (Let's be PC about it) for a week in Silicon Valley.
      This does not necessarily mean it is any more effective at providing proper support or resolution.
      If you want support; get a bra.

      It's a pity that too many think this way as your support function is you r1st line contact with your consumer once yuor product hits the shelves.
      What an amazing marketing opportunity!
      Bill is not a marketing genius, or a businessman, he's a bully with a bank-roll.
      How do bullies build bank-rolls you ask? cut costs to maximize profits.
      His proper mareting response to this would/should probably go along the following lines: at least he's created jobs in another man's country.

      Another concept to consider while we're targetting MS: Imagine Wilkinson Sword released patent information about a self-sharpening razor blade? would we ever need to buy another razor?
      Hence things, MS software included, are designed to break, or at least have limited functionality or lifespan in turn designed to create repeat/return business.
      How else can good business be sustainable?

      Ps - I dont work for MS, and have experienced exactly the same issues with their products pastand present as almost everyone else
      Xi8iT x
  • A memory upgrade you did how long ago?

    I can understand if two things changed *at once*, but does Vista keep track of the number of things you've ever changed, no matter how long ago, and also count those? Or is there a certain amount of time that can pass after which it no longer counts? Hopefully you'll come back and say that you changed the memory only a short time ago.
    rseiler
    • Three months, I believe

      I'll have more details later.
      Ed Bott
      • Three months, and still takes it into account?

        You did the memory change three months ago, and it still took that into account? Microsoft has totally messed up with their activation system then.

        It should not take into account changes to ANYTHING except the motherboard, period and done with. No reactivation if you install a new hard drive (or reactivation AUTOMATICALLY online). No reactivation if you install new memory, period. No reactivation if you install a new disk drive.

        Microsoft is going to have to learn that the ONLY time that they should require re-verification is when a motherboard changes, and even then they should allow the thing to automatically update online, unless when it checks for that automatic update it notices that there have been a lot of activations for that Windows Vista number in their system in RECENT (<3 months) history.
        Leria
        • Better yet...

          Why track anything other than the activation code? Unless that is used on 2 or more computers simultaneously, there is no certainty of fraud. And, from what I've read, there is more than enough fraud for such approach to catch "the worst of it".
          Absolutely
  • The tighter they squeeze the more

    will defect. ]:)
    Linux User 147560
    • The tighter they sqeeze...

      and the more problems I see with WGD (Windows Genuine Disadvantage) the happier I am with XP.
      Beat a Dead Horse
  • Non-issue for this CIO...

    I blame the hardware vendors for this one. The drivers should be tested thoroughly to make sure they do not require re-activation. Hardware vendors ARE RESPONSIBLE for making sure your Vista WOW stay license and activation compliant. Luckily I run Enterprise Vista and have internal KMS servers handling everything. It also helped we added an option to the help desk phone system for activation issues. I pick one lucky MCSE a week to man the activation hotline. Call volumes must be low because they usually leave at lunch and never return.
    Mike Cox
    • Truly back to form, Mike

      [i]Call volumes must be low because they usually leave at lunch and never return.[/i]

      That's a 10 right there, Mikey.
      Tony Agudo
    • Salute to Mike, very suave ...

      But seriously, this situation could have an interesting effect on the hardware business. You can go in two directions: never ever modify your computer hardware until you junk it, or budget for buying Microsoft Vista a couple of different times for the same computer. What a choice ...
      terry flores
      • There is one other choice !

        Assuming you are a glutton for punishment and frustration so much so that you are going to keep Vista, then there is one other solution. Whatever hardware you decide to buy, let's say it's a Logitech Pro 5000 Webcam as it comes with some funky software that requires installing before hooking the camera up. Now before you buy it, you call up Logitech and ask them if they have a certified Vista driver and or software for this webcam. No, they say but you can still go ahead and install it as they developed the software and driver to work with Vista. You say NO, I want a certified driver ! Well, we don't have one available. Now if you did this with every piece of hardware, I can guarantee you wouldn't be installing very much hardware as 99 percent have no certified drivers. No use pointing your finger at MS because they just direct you back to the fact they won't guarantee their OS to work unless software and drivers are certified by Microsoft. This is a non issue with Apples Mac as all hardware, drivers, software and configuration is done to eliminate this soup pot of driver issues. But then that would limit your frustration and gluttony for punishment, well you can't have everything. Welcome to Vista
        intrepi
        • Horrible problem, with a non solution implied

          "Apples Mac as all hardware, drivers, software and configuration is done to eliminate this soup pot of driver issues"

          That kind of response to such a ludicrous and almost criminal problem that MS and far to many companies feel free to indulge in is a waste of time. I suggest right now, anyone who feels they can find a way to get by on an Apple computer to do so right away if they haven't already. There are quite a few people who are ecstatic over owning an Apple so pay the price get the white hardware and be ecstatic if you haven't already done it long ago.

          But for those who don't want an overpriced Apple White Box and want the ability to play all the popular games and to be able to continue to use their favorite familiar hardware and don't want the risks involved with ridiculous high risk DRM just stick with XP. Its a great OS, and even unsupported, with the right free security apps it will still be great for the next 4 or 5 years. Thats the real solution. Don't waste your money on Vista if you want a Windows OS, and obviously, I would hope obviously, don't waste your money on an Apple computer if you want a Windows OS.
          Cayble
          • Wring! XP is NOT dead and MUST BE fully supported by MS

            You said: "XP. Its a great OS, and even unsupported, with the right free security apps it will still be great for the next 4 or 5 years"

            That's wrong. XP is still sold, and MUST be supported by Microsoft for at least 2 years after purchase, as expected by their contract and public announcements (advertizing).

            Microsoft has still not announced that XP wouldstop being delivered or newer support options.

            You can still find retail XP in legal stores, and Microsoft has been instructed by lots of professionals to continue supporting XP Pro because they need it and are not prepared to support the cost of migration to Vista and its numerous compatibility problems.

            Remember: Vista was officially released only a few months ago (in last february for retail version), and it still lacks many of the essential drivers needed to make it work without problems (the activation problems is a serious issue why Vista can't beconsidered as a definitive replacement of XP). XP is definitely not dead, and Vista is still too young.
            PhilippeV