Microsoft: No Activation Changes Until Longhorn

As leaked copies of Windows Server 2003 begin to surface before its launch, Microsoft says not to expect many changes to product activation in the new operating system - indicating the anti-piracy technology has met expectations.

The company has yielded any drastic changes for its next generation Windows client, code-named Longhorn. Windows Server 2003 will have no more of the controversial activation technology than was seen in the first Windows XP service pack, along with a few tweaks.

When retooling activation for Windows Server 2003, Microsoft targeted scenarios specific to server environments. Algorithms were modified to reflect differences in hardware present in business and enterprise systems. RAID controllers and hot swappable drives, for example, are not often found on the desktop. Despite these differences in architecture, the trigger for re-activation remains unchanged.

Microsoft Product Manager of Activation Allen Nieman explained to BetaNews that although it would seem there are major differences between the two environments, product activation processes are identical. Customers will be extended the same number of hardware modifications, and a "grace period" of three days to reactivate.

However, activation is a scenario few will encounter. Most large customers will purchase Windows Server 2003 through Microsoft's volume licensing program, which does not require activation. Key OEM partners such as Dell will continue on the path of selling standalone servers pre-activated. Only boxed copies of the operating system will require activation.

These volume license keys, distributed to OEMs before a product's official release, have caused quite a headache for Microsoft. The company acknowledged that one such key has leaked to the Internet and copies of Windows Server 2003 have already been illegally posted for download. Microsoft encountered the same problem before the launch of Windows XP in 2001.

But such a leak of Windows Server 2003 is of relatively minor concern to Microsoft. The company can easily block the key in future updates and service packs, which are essential to keeping systems secure - a primary concern for business customers.

Nieman previously noted that customers who acquire pirated software are ineligible for technical support, product upgrades and warranty protections.

Windows Product Activation made its debut months before Windows XP was a finished product, drawing sharp criticism from consumers. This public outcry led Microsoft to water down its campaign against piracy prior to releasing the finished product.

Despite customer upheaval, Redmond claims that it continually had its ear to the ground, while at the same time thwarting off casual copying and illegal cloning. According to Microsoft, only a handful of leaked keys made up over 95 percent of illegal installations.

Windows XP Service Pack 1 raised the bar against software pirates by blocking compromised product keys and activation circumventions such as cracks. Microsoft is likely to take this same approach in updates to Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP SP2.

Microsoft's Nieman likened concern over product activation to the over-hyped Y2K phenomenon, while promising that the user experience will be drastically improved in Longhorn – meaning fewer users will need to activate. The activation group is also striving to more precisely identify hardware.

Sources tell BetaNews that Microsoft may additionally bolster Longhorn's system file protection in an effort to make activation cracks nearly impossible to pull off.

Despite its apparent success, Nieman said Microsoft has been unable to make evident that there is any direct causation between product activation and increased sales.

Using an old Chinese proverb, Nieman illustrated the fine line that he and his colleagues are walking to protect their intellectual property. "The harder you squeeze water cupped in your hands, the more it squirts out your fingers," he said.

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