Making sense of Microsoft's confusing Windows activation rules

Last week, Microsoft cut the number of Windows and Office product keys it includes for TechNet subscribers. Readers tell me that doesn't matter, because every key is good for multiple activations. But is that really true? My investigation says yes, although exact details are murky.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Over the years, I have written tens of thousands of words about the mysterious workings of Microsoft’s Windows activation technology in XP, Vista, and Windows 7. It might be one of the most arcane and misunderstood technologies of the PC era.

Last week, the topic came up again when I published details about Microsoft’s decision to cut the number of Windows and Office product keys it includes with TechNet subscriptions. (See “Microsoft slashes product key allowances for TechNet subscribers.”) Two years ago, a TechNet subscription included 10 product keys for each version of Windows and Office. That number was cut to five in late 2010, and to three earlier this month.

A half-dozen readers left Talkback comments and sent emails telling me that it’s “well known” that each TechNet product key can be activated 10 times. Several quoted Paul Thurrott, who wrote in 2010, without citing a source, “Each product key can be used to install up to 10 versions of the OS or application, for the most part.”

So, they say, no big deal—three product keys equals 30 installations per Windows and Office version.

But is that true?

I’ve fact-checked this issue several times over the years and have never been able to track down a definitive answer.

This policy is not documented on any official Microsoft site. I have found unofficial statements on Microsoft’s public support forums and in private emails, like this example from a front-line tech on a support forum:

You have 2 product keys for most products, and for Windows Retail keys, each of these keys will let you activate at least 10 times (it depends on the key type).

Another customer got this message from a support rep last week, via email:

Thank you for contacting Microsoft regarding your TechNet subscription.

I understand that you are not satisfied with the TechNet product key reduction. I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.

Our customer research has identified that three product keys are the appropriate amount for TechNet professional subscribers based on subscription usage. As such, please be advised that each product key is good for up to ten activations. Also, most products come with a complimentary 30, 60, or 90 day evaluation period. If you plan on frequently re-imaging machines, please consider using the trial version in lieu of one of your activations. These complimentary evaluation periods should allow you to complete your short-term testing. If you need to do long-term testing, you will need to use one of your activations.

Smoking gun? Well, I’m always suspicious of information that comes from front-line support reps, who often are well meaning but not fully in the loop. In addition, these two messages are actually contradictory. One says each key is worth at least 10 activations, the other says up to 10. Is either statement true? If so which is it?

I asked a few official and unofficial sources at Microsoft. It took 48 hours and much hemming and hawing, but I finally got a Microsoft spokesperson to confirm that 10 activations per subscription key “is not the official policy across all products.” She went on to note that "different products call for different activation parameters.”

That’s something more than a non-denial denial, but it’s still far from clear. And that, as it turns out, is the crux of the problem. The official policy for retail Windows product keys is that you are allowed one activation, with an unlimited number of reactivations on hardware that is substantially the same as the system on which the OS was originally installed.

But the activation servers, which do the grunt work of processing activations over the Internet, aren’t so rigid. There are, in fact, business rules designed to flag unusual behavior and allow or block activations based on those rules. For example, if you activate a retail copy of Windows on a PC and then, 18 months later, try to activate that same key on a different PC, your activation will probably complete without error. Why? Because that’s the behavior of an enthusiast getting a new PC, not a pirate.

If, on the other hand, the same key is used to try to activate Windows on six different PCs in widely scattered geographical locations over a short period, that key is likely to be flagged as stolen.

Microsoft doesn't like to go into detail about those business rules, because doing so makes it easier for pirates to figure out how to game the system. Crooks who have to guess about how the system works are more likely to screw up and get caught.

In the case of TechNet keys, there isn’t a literal 10-activations-per-key algorithm on the activation servers. Instead, the business rules are set to recognize the way that TechNet subscribers—who are typically enthusiasts and IT pros—are likely to use those licenses. They play with it, reinstall on multiple hardware configurations to test compatibility, and try to see if it breaks things. The upshot is that those TechNet subscribers behave far differently from typical retail customers. As a result, the business rules flag TechNet keys as special. They are indeed able to qualify for more activations than an equivalent retail key would get. And if your legitimately obtained keys fail to activate, you should be able to resolve the issue with a phone call or email to Microsoft support.

Sources at Microsoft adamantly refused to talk on or off the record about specific numbers used as activation guidelines. But they did confirm that the rules are relaxed:

The way we allocate keys for TechNet subscriptions is designed to offer our customers with high flexibility for their software evaluation needs with minimum hassles. In keeping with the spirit of the TechNet Subscriptions program, we go out of our way to ensure that legitimate subscribers are able to fairly test and evaluate our technologies.

My experience with TechNet downloads and product keys over the years bears that out. I keep good records about which keys are used where, and I can’t remember ever being denied activation because a key had been used too many times.

The lack of transparency in the process is frustrating, but it’s also understandable. Software pirates have proven, time and again, that they’re willing to treat each unique key as an asset that can be resold against the TechNet terms of service. Reducing the number of keys in a subscription means there are fewer of those assets to bootleg. As long as legitimate subscribers find a relaxed and tolerant attitude when activation time comes around, this might turn out to be a non-issue.

In the wake of the TechNet product key reduction, I’m interested in hearing firsthand reports about your experience with Microsoft’s activation servers. If you’ve had recent experience that can help make sense of how this activation works, please send me an email or leave a comment below.


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