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An invasion of privacy? A 'legal' hassle? What is it?: WinXP Activation

Starting with Windows XP, you can no longer buy one copy of Windows and install it on every PC you own-not four systems, not three systems, not two systems: just one system...

Starting with Windows XP, you can no longer buy one copy of Windows and install it on every PC you own-not four systems, not three systems, not two systems: just one system.

Of course, that's been the legal installation rule all along, but this time, Microsoft is bound and determined to enforce its rules. So, you'll have to activate your single-PC copies of Windows XP within 30 days of installation, or the OS will stop working.

How's it done?

In its simplest form, activation (on a PC connected to the Internet) is a matter of sending a unique code from your PC to a server at Microsoft. That server then returns an activation code, which allows you to keep using the operating system. The code belongs to your computer alone and acts as a flag to Microsoft if your copy shows up on another PC or if you significantly alter some part of your PC.

Activation starts with an Installation ID-a packet of encrypted data containing the 25-character XP serial number combined with hardware information-which is sent to Microsoft over the Internet. No personal information is gathered, stored, considered or transmitted during activation.

The registration process, on the other hand, does collect personal data, such as your name, address, and e-mail address, but as a separate process that is not required for activation. If your PC isn't connected to the Internet when you install or activate XP, the OS presents the Installation ID on your screen, and you must read it over the phone to a Microsoft customer service person.

What does Microsoft do with my ID?

At Microsoft's activation server, a program checks the ID to verify that the data arrived intact and that the product ID has not been used with a different hardware fingerprint XP stores the system fingerprint on your PC in a file named wpa.dbl. From now on, whenever you reinstall that copy of Windows, the Microsoft server compares the original system fingerprint and OS serial number created at first activation with the current system fingerprint for that product serial number.

What about hardware changes?

Windows XP reevaluates the combination of hardware items whenever it starts up and discovers new devices. Microsoft says that you can change up to six devices at a time, or your network interface card and three other devices, without having to reactivate.

If you change the same component, such as your video card, over and over, it counts as only one change, and new components, such as a new modem or an extra memory module, do not count as a change. Meanwhile, if you buy a new PC with XP preinstalled, Microsoft says the computer manufacturer will probably link activation solely to the system BIOS.

That means that you can change every single hardware component on your machine, and, as long as the BIOS is unchanged, you won't have to reactivate XP.

What happens if I have to reactivate XP?

If you do have to reactivate XP, it doesn't mean you have to buy another copy, but you will have to call Microsoft and get the company to issue you another activation ID. The threat of constant reactivation provoked such a serious public furor that Microsoft lightened up considerably on its reactivation trigger and now indicates that it may reset your "change counter" sometime after 30, 60, 90 or more days of using the same hardware.

You'll have to reactivate your copy of XP if you exceed the maximum number of hardware changes or make too many too soon, install your copy on a different PC, forget to activate before the post-installation grace period expires, or, for some reason, do not get a Confirmation ID back from the server.

To reactivate XP, just make a quick call to Microsoft's new customer service department for activation to get a new Confirmation ID. Reactivation establishes a new reference fingerprint of the hardware to replace the prior one. Microsoft has published an official explanation of the activation process, which answers some common user questions.

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