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Windows XP urban legends and myths

As the clamor about Windows XP grows so does the confusion. David Coursey takes a look at the most common misconceptions and questions about licensing, authorization, and compatibility, and give you some answers.

COMMENTARY-- Hello from New York City, where the Marriott Marquis theater will host tomorrow's formal introduction of Windows XP. Amid tightened security--make sure you have two photo IDs--Microsoft is doing its best to whip the media, especially the non-tech media, into a Starbucks-quality foam.

And just in case Microsoft can't do it alone, they've hired recording artist Sting to do a concert on Thursday immediately following the XP introduction event.

THOUGH WINDOWS XP isn't even in stores yet--excepting the hardware on which it's been preinstalled--it's already spawned an urban legend or two. Urban legends are scary or cautionary tales with some basis in fact upon which an elaborate fiction is built.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft's Windows XP product activation--an unpopular and controversial means of cracking down on casual software piracy--is the basis for one of these legends, which also draws on Microsoft's plan to sell software on a subscription basis at some time in the future.

I generally receive this urban legend as a question: "Can Microsoft 'turn off' my software? Will they disable Windows XP when I'm ready to upgrade to something else?" Or as a bewildered statement: "I've heard Windows XP expires at some point and you'll force me to buy new software."

AS IT STANDS, Microsoft has ended support for some older software. As a result, the user fear boils down to this: If (and when) Microsoft decides to create the successor to XP, they might either (1) turn off the XP I'm already using in an effort to force me to upgrade, or (2) stop providing activation codes to XP users, essentially rendering it unusable.

Microsoft says it's a baseless fear--they can't and won't do the things described. But just as some urban legends are hard to absolutely disprove, I guess we will never be sure about this one until Microsoft is ready to phase out Windows XP, the way it already has with Windows 3.x and Windows 95.

Since Microsoft's End-User License Agreement doesn't provide for this, I can't imagine it happening. Still, I've gone to Microsoft for the official word, here presented by Mark Croft, a lead product manager on the XP team.

According to Croft, Windows Product Activation has a 30-day grace period during which the user must activate that copy of Windows. If the user hasn't activated by the 30th day, they'll be able to boot their PC but won't be able to launch Windows without first calling to activate their copy of the product. If users activate XP prior to the 30th day, they may do so online or via phone, said Croft.

"Also," said Croft, "there is no mechanism for Microsoft to 'reach out' and turn off (or otherwise change) user's Windows installations. The activation period is simply a local counter on the installed PC."

Here are some more activation-related questions, with answers also provided by Microsoft's Croft.

I work in corporate IS. How does activation affect me? Do I need a separate install disk for each computer?
"No. Beginning with a minimum of five PCs, corporate customers may take advantage of Microsoft's volume licensing programs. For these customers, Microsoft will provide a Volume License Product Key that allows users to bypass product activation. Customers can then use Microsoft's documented deployment tools, such as Custom Installation Wizard (CIW) in Office XP and unattended setup in Windows XP, to automate product key entry into network and custom CD install images, so that end users are never prompted to enter a product key during product installation."

I like to rebuild my computer occasionally--wipe the hard drive and reinstall the OS. Will I have to call Microsoft for an activation code each time?
"No. If the hardware remains the same, then Product Activation will generate the same key that will map exactly to the existing key held at the clearinghouse--so users can just use the Web-based activation. No call required. Also, if the PC came with XP pre-installed (via an OEM), then activation only inspects part of the BIOS--so the user can wipe-and-load and change all the hardware (except the BIOS) without needing to call.

"If the PC has been upgraded using retail media and hardware gets changed, then the technical market bulletin located here documents the hardware changes that may be made before triggering the need to reactivate.

"To summarize, if the PC is not dockable and a network adapter exists and is not changed, six or more of the 10 components (see the link above for the 10 components) must be changed before reactivation is required. If a network adapter existed but is changed (or never existed at all), modifying four or more of the 10 components will result in a need to reactivate.

"Microsoft has also recognized that certain users may wish to change components frequently. As a result, Microsoft recently implemented time-based reactivation. Every 120 days, the current configuration of a user's PC will 'reset to zero,' so to speak. Starting from that 120th day, users may swap out hardware components as described above. After another 120 days passes, the PC 'sets to zero' again, and users once again may swap out hardware components. This time-based reactivation is designed to provide users with greater flexibility to change their systems."

What happens if my hard drive fails and I need to reinstall the OS? How much questioning will I have to undergo before you let me activate again?
"No questioning should be involved, as no call should be required. All you'll need is Web-based reactivation. The new hard drive will mean the activation key has been modified, but it will compare within tolerance with the existing key on the Clearinghouse. Also, if a user does call, Microsoft will always err on the side of the user. If you provide to the support representative a simple explanation of why you need to reactivate, that should suffice." (Back to you, David.)

Will Windows XP be compatible with my old software?
I am becoming concerned about Windows XP compatibility with older applications, especially games and DOS apps. This is based on some reader feedback I have received from people who find that XP won't work with some of their more ancient--but still important--applications.

While Microsoft has done lots of compatibility testing, if you are dependent on some old apps, then I'd want to make sure they really do run under XP before upgrading. And every upgrader should download and run Microsoft's free Upgrade Advisor before spending his or her money for an OS that may still lack drivers for some hardware or not work with certain apps--the Adaptec/Roxio Easy CD Creator is a prime example.