Windows Activation (Server 2008 style)

One of the things we've done with Windows over the years is to try to make life a bit harder for people who pirate it. This isn't just about protecting Microsoft's revenue (or even keeping that revenue out of the hands of criminals) but investigations have found that pirates expose their "customers" to other risks: everything from dangerous electrical components to malware infestations. Our  targets are those who pirate in bulk rather than the person who sneaks a second copy for use at home. We know that there are keys out there that have been compromised and we invalidate them from time to time - which has caused grief for some legitimate customers whose systems have been built (or rebuilt) by someone who cut a corner and used a key they shouldn't have. It's also caused some real pirates to get reported.

Activation of Windows adds another layer of protection. When the system is activated it takes a snapshot of the hardware and if too many things change subsequently it requires re-activation. Of course if you rebuild the system that requires a second activation as well.
Internally Microsoft people can get product keys, but these are no different from the ones customers get. If I rebuild my system or change it it too radically then activation kicks in. And like a customer, I'll get the message to say this product key has been used before.  For this reason I avoid activating machines until they get to the very end of their grace period (since there is a better than even chance demo machines won't last any longer than that). But this morning my main Server-2008 machine ran out of time. So I went to activate it with my internally issued key and as expected, it tells me that key has been used. I have the luxury of getting another key, but since I've been asked about re-activation a number of times, I thought I'd go through the process that a customer would go through. So here are the steps

  1. Choose your country in the activation wizard and in the UK I get a Toll-Free phone number to call and an alternative number.
  2. Enter a 42 digit number on the telephone keypad... either the system can't cope with Server 2008 or I mistyped because it told me the number was no good and transferred me to an operator
  3. After a short pause and some background noise that says "this call is going Off-shore" I get accented voice which confirms it. I'm not a fan of Off-shore call centres but if it's a task which follows a script we should be fine
  4. I give the operator first part of my number. That number is too short to identify my specific copy of Windows (it's possible that released software needs the full key) and I don't have to tell him who I am.
  5. He asks a couple of questions, "How many other computers is this copy installed on" - "None. It was on this one, but I've reinstalled", "Did the software come with the computer or did you buy it in a shop" "Neither, it was a beta"
  6. He reads me a 42 digit number. I feel sorry for the poor guy reading blocks of 42 digits out all day, asking the same couple of questions of anonymous people (some of whom will be annoyed at having to call).
  7. I click next, Windows says it has been activated and advises me to reboot to ensure all features are available.

Total time less than 5 minutes. I don't think that's an unreasonable imposition. I know there are people who don't like it in principle, and I feel some sympathy with that. But the combination of decent length grace periods and taking as much pain as possible out of the manual activation process mean that it is not the horrendous business that some would have you believe.



Comments (9)
  1. Anonymous says:

    There are 3 things I get asked regularly about Hyper-V. The first is "When can I get it ?". I’ve covered

  2. James ONeill says:

    @Dave, Just changing the DVD shouldn’t trip activation. In fact on my laptop popping out the DVD, and plugging in a hard disk in it’s place definitely doesn’t. I’ve got two Dell 820s on my desk with different brands of DVD in them I might try swapping the disks to prove it.

    But if you have changed other bits in the past, then changing the DVD might be the thing that pushes the system over the edge.

    @Ryan. What you’re describing absolutely should not happen. Anti virus expiring should not impact whether Windows thinks it is genuine and aero should work unless something runs which Vista knows is incompatible with it or if the performance rating of the machine goes down.

    Can I ask you to get in touch ? I’d like to escalate this internally.



  3. James ONeill says:


    I change the secondary disk on my laptop on pretty much a daily basis, with no problem. If you think changing the DVD on it’s own trips activation, I’ll offer you a £100 bet. We’ll take a PC of your choice, install Vista on it, activate Vista, and then change the DVD. If it demands re-activation you get £100 out of me. If it doesn’t, your £100 goes to charity (and Microsoft will add another £100 – company policy). Name the day and we’ll do it on camera.

    Of course if you change the network card, upgrade the processor, upgrade the BIOS, remove some RAM and put a different sound card in and *THEN* change the DVD that would be expected to trip re-activation.  

    We lose $23 billion US per year through piracy. A lot of that is large scale, organized theft. Should we try to do something to stop that or allow both our shareholders and customers to be robbed ? And make no mistake here, customers are paying for the genuine article and not getting it so they ARE being robbed.  

    I don’t much like activation – since I keep having to rebuild systems for demos it’s a pain for me too (I’m not allowed to have an "unlimited" licence key). But it seems to me to the least bad option.

    If you’ve got a better way let me know and I’ll arrange for you to pitch it the right people. Otherwise do let me know how you (as someone in their right mind) defends theft ?

  4. Anonymous says:

    or Does using the other software make you stupid ? There are some odd things about doing this job. One

  5. Dave G says:

    I recently changed my DVD drive and was forced to re-activate, and was promply told my key was already in use, didnt want to hang around on the phone to speak to someone though.  Will give it a try though (had a anytime upgrade that was rendered usless which annoyed me most)  While I understand there needs to be some sort of acvtivation process, having to jump through hoops to change a DVD drive is a bit much.

  6. ryan says:

    James, I have to tell you a situation that I experienced around activation that concerns me.  I’m not one to stand at the front of the anti-activation parade by any means–I can appreciate and understand why Microsoft and others do it–but I definitely have mixed feelings about it in a corporate setting.  For home use, fine–it’s easy and straightforward.  For hundreds or thousands of PCs… it could be a total nightmare.

    This particular situation really bothered me, though.  At a small office (50 PCs), they are running Vista.  Their anti-virus software subscription went into the grace period–not expired, but with 30 days left to renew.  *This* simple action caused popups to start appearing on their computers, saying things along the lines of "Your copy of Windows may not be genuine" and "Aero stopped working" and whatnot.  I was astonished that the sole act of the anti-virus software going into "grace period" mode (which should really be the same as normal operation, if "grace period" is really what it says it is) would trip the activation alarms.  What if they were to switch anti-virus vendors?  What if they had 1000 PCs?  Multiply that by 5 minutes (even for 50 PCs), and that’s no longer an "unreasonable imposition."  That would be a time when most folks would be so mad, they’d be looking for alternatives (and to make some heads roll).  This is a company that treats software licensing very seriously (dealing with all the intricacies of Microsoft licensing takes them about 16-20 man-hours per year, which is another topic of frustration).  I think I can sum up their feelings about this like this: "When we’re paying so much money every year and going to so much effort to make sure we’re licensed properly, why are WE the ones being penalized for piracy?"  

    I truly hope that the hoards of talent at Microsoft can devise an alternative solution, at least for their business customers.

  7. John W says:

    This is hilarious. You saying "it shouldn’t trip activation" yet still it does. This ia deeply flawed system and noone in their right mind can try to defend it.

  8. Russ says:

    Here’s something on activation to take a look at if you have time/inclination: I’ve experienced first hand activation prompts on an activated PC after uninstalling just one item of software only.  For the specifics, I have a Dell Dimension 9150 PC (based on an Intel 945P chipset) and I had Intel’s Matrix Storage Manager (v installed at the time I initially activated Windows Vista Ultimate.  Absolutely no other hardware or software has changed.  If I now uninstall the Matrix Storage Manager software, up pops the activation request saying my product key is in use and it simply won’t take it that this is the "same" PC, even when phoning the automated line and keying in that 40 character number.  I’ve even tried it after re-installing from scratch.  My guess is that identification of ATA controllers (which this software obviously changes the drivers for) must form some key part of the activation.  Maybe changes to these may appear like a new motherboard?!  In reality, its no ‘biggie’, I’ve just reinstalled IAA and away went the activation requests!   I’m not up for challenging anyway one to any £100 bets but if you have this software installed on an activated Vista machine; give uninstalling it a go to see what you get.

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