Free Vista promotions may not be free after all

The message that greets recipients of free Vista copies as of January 16, 2009

It's hard to complain when someone offers you his top-of-the-line operating system for free. But it's hard not to complain when you're all ready to install it and you discover, surprise, it may not be free after all. That's the situation facing perhaps hundreds of recent recipients of Windows Vista Ultimate SP1, as gifts for attending the company's MSDN seminar tours.

To ensure that recipients register their copies and only use them once, Microsoft printed a promotional code inside the jacket, which is not the usual product key. By visiting the Web site and entering the promotional code, recipients are given the full product key, and that way they will also be registered with Microsoft. Perhaps as part of a plan instituted months earlier, Microsoft set the Web site to discontinue operations after December 31, 2008.


As a result, folks who received their promotional copies just days earlier, or even since that time, have been unable to receive product keys. That doesn't mean they can't install Vista, however -- it merely installs as a promotional version that times out the system after 30 days of not being activated...and purchased.

One independent British developer, John Baker, has been driving Microsoft to re-institute the Web site. Three weeks ago, a Microsoft representative told him the company had indeed relented, and would be extending its promotional deadline until February. But as of last Saturday, he was informed Microsoft's own efforts at re-launching its own Web site had experienced "logistical delays."

The confusion has already compelled some developers, miffed by having realized they don't have valid product keys after already launching setup, to use a third-party brute-force cracking tool to extract one from the timed-out version.

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