7/8/2001 We're months away from launch, but XP is gearing up to be Microsoft's most controversial launch by far. Everywhere you look there are things you'd rather not have -- smart tags hijacking your web site, icons for Microsoft services on the desktop, product activation -- and while Microsoft is making soothing noises about most of them you just know they'll be there in the end. Perhaps the nastiest is Windows Product Activation, or WPA. If you've missed this, then get up to speed: the idea is that when you install your operating system you have thirty days to phone up Microsoft and get a key, or your computer will stop working properly. If you fiddle with your machine too much, the software will think it's been copied onto a second computer and you'll have to get another key. Four keys, and that's it. How does this benefit the consumer? Microsoft says that it's there to stop piracy, which is admittedly an issue. But it has the side effect of giving Microsoft to decide to not let you continue to use its software. I know people who are still happily using Windows 95 despite Microsoft's five year support cut-off. If you're using XP in five year's time and it decides it wants a new key, Microsoft could just say 'nope'. Some people think that WPA is a way to get people to buy annual site licences instead of outright purchase; if you do that, you can install it without a key pretty much as you wish. But every year, you get to pay MS some more dosh. It'll be easier to test whether MS is serious about it reducing piracy. While the cost of computing hardware has fallen enormously over the past ten years, the price of Windows has doubled. No doubt, this reflects the level of piracy. So, XP -- being difficult to pirate -- should cost a lot less. But I'm not making any bets.