back to article Windows Product Activation – or just how many numbers we could get a user to tell us down the telephone

The product activation inflicted on Windows by Microsoft has few fans, but one of its creators stepped up over the weekend to explain and defend the maligned technology. The sight of Windows bleating about activation is a familiar one (certainly to those that follow our Bork feature). While also a mainstay of the Office …

  1. Dave K

    "Phone activation," he said, "is always going to limit the amount of information that can go back and forth and so will always be an attack vector and likely the easiest one for hackers to target."

    He forgot the easier attack vendor for XP's activation, which was simply to use the volume license version as this didn't require activation (it was before the time of KMS servers for enterprise). Almost everyone I came across who dabbled in pirated XP simply used the VL version of XP Pro as a result...

    1. TonyJ Silver badge

      Or used hacked copies. I had several neighbours get arsey with me when they were told they needed a full reinstall because of nasties they'd picked up due to XP not updating because of the hacks.

      The expectation always seemed to be that I'd "help them out" and they didn't seem to appreciate being told they either had to buy a licensed copy or scrap the lot and put Linux on.

      Another of the many reasons I eventually refused to help non family members.

      1. N2

        Another of the many reasons I eventually refused to help non family members.

        Good for you, I had some twat banging on my door at 09.00 on a Saturday morning once, citing double time for weekends gave him a clue that I wasn't interested in sorting out his mess.

      2. chivo243 Silver badge

        Having memorized our VL for XP, I couldn't not type it in when I saw that blue box... If I really had to remember it I think I could, I have a few nemonic tricks, just have to remember what those were...

        1. Martin

          It's mnemonic, not nemonic.

          God knows why, but it has a silent "m" at the start - there are very few words like that, and all of them start "mnemo-"

          1. Trigonoceps occipitalis

            I don't know, its all Greek to me. (Possibly)

            Edit: "μνημονικός" apparently.

          2. Empty1

            I always wondered why "Phonetic" didn't start with an F

            1. jake Silver badge

              Because it's from the proto-indo-european, which was all Greek to the Romans, so they invented a spleling. English stole it from the Latin.

              A less tongue-in-cheek answer: The original root word was the PIE "bha" meaning to speak, tell, or say. The Greeks borrowed the word and wrote this an aspirated sound with a φ (phi) (similar to the ph in "uphill", coincidentally). Over time, as the language shifted, the sound became more like the "f" we use today. Centuries later, when the Romans were developing delusions of grandeur, they took the Greek and Latinized the f-sound with ph. Eventually this came into English by way of French and German.

      3. Dave K

        Question is if this is due to "hacks", or due to people using early VL keys. I seem to recall that some of the service packs blacklisted a number of the most common "pirate" VL keys that were in use. Hence, bung the service pack on and Windows Update refuses to install any further updates.

        Still, having your neighbours asking you to fix their pirated OS is a bit of a cheek!

        1. FIA Silver badge

          Still, having your neighbours asking you to fix their pirated OS is a bit of a cheek!

          That was the problem though. Most people had just bought a PC.. They didn't know they were dirty pirates until the box appeared.... :)

      4. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

        Me too!

        Me too!

        Now I've got a friend of a friend -- who turns out to be a total asshole anyway, I wouldn't loan him 5 cents, but this was before I realized that -- who insisted since I know about computers, I must install Windows 7 on his computer for him. I pointed out a) You don't have a copy of Windows 7, go ahead and buy one (since there's free alternatives I'm not going to help him pirate anything). b) It's out of support, no more updates to keep it secure, so you shouldn't be running 7 anyway, if you insist on Windows you'll need 10 on there. c) I'd put Ubuntu on there for him*. (His response that he can't use Linux, without even trying to use it -- but he now constantly borrows my friends computer, with Ubuntu on it, since his is totally non-functional and of course has no problems using it.)

        I read a comment years ago that rang true about this to me -- if you knew a neighbor that's a plumber, you would probably not be like "Hey you, you're good with pipes! Fix my toilet!", but with computers that's exactly the expectation people seem to have.

        *He saw it running on my friends computer and had no problems using it -- when I do an install, I put gnome flashback on there so it's not running Unity.

        1. The commentard formerly known as Miek

          Re: Me too!

          Never knew about gnome flashback. I absolutely loved Gnome 2 and when Gnome went to version 3 I absolutely hated it and ended up on Cinnamon.

          Thanks for the tip! Pint icon because obviously I owe you one.

          1. Intractable Potsherd

            Re: Me too!

            O/T - I don't understand the love for different desktop environments. I use Windows, Linux and Android environments most days, crossing over without even thinking about it. Sure, I'd prefer proper buttons that show you have clicked them, but, beyond that, it makes no difference. Maybe it's because I'm not a power user, so maybe someone can explain why the Gnome v KDE v whatever keeps rumbling on.

            1. jake Silver badge

              Re: Me too!

              At the basic level, it's personal opinion.

              There are also technical reasons people might prefer one over another.

              Some folks don't like the attitude of the developers of one or another.

              Some folks have grudges over radical changes that are a decade old or more.

              Etc, etc, etc, ad infinitem.

      5. heyrick Silver badge

        "the many reasons I eventually refused to help non family members"

        There's also the danger that if somebody should get caught with a pirate copy, they might turn around and point at you and say "I had no idea, he did it".

        If I clocked that a copy of XP (in the days when I helped out) was not legit or had no antivirus, I just walked away. Not touching that for the price of tea and biscuits, uh uh, nope.

    2. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

      Yup. Though my use was largely "grey" rather than out-and-out pirate, once I got a VL key from $university, I used it for every machine that I installed XP on thereafter – even when there was another legit license available. It was just simpler that way. Same for Office.

      1. Loyal Commenter

        Older versions of Office didn't even need a key. IIRC, you could activate them with 1111-1111-1111-1111, or something similar.

        1. mark l 2 Silver badge

          With a bit of editing in the bios you could get a royalty OEM version of XP to install without any activation required. (that's the Windows install CDs that came with PCs from Dell, HP, Acer etc)

          I remember downloading a flash utility which would put a SLIC header for HP in most Award bioses. And Windows would find that info in the bios during installation and not require activation on first boot. It would even pass the Microsoft Windows authentication test as it would think it was the version pre-installed by HP at the factory.

          It still work for installing a copy of XP in a virtual machine as you can now put the code into the config files for the software. Handy for when MS eventually turns off activation servers meaning you wouldn't be able to do it online

        2. Trigonoceps occipitalis


          At one time entering a multiple of 7 was enough to activate Office (?).

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Revenge needs to be had...

    If anyone reading this ever has dealings with Dave Plummer, regardless of how trivial, then make him work like hell and more before letting him proceed.

    DP: "Could I book a table with you at 7pm on Thursday?"

    You: "Sure; to confirm your validity please could you please type in the digits of pi or e on your keypad now. Yes, all of them."

    DP: "Could you tell me where the nearest toilet is please?"

    You: "Sure, but to confirm your identity and eligibility to use our resources, I will need you to write down the dictionary on your napkin. Yes, the English dictionary. Yes, every word. Yes, and definitions too. Yes, in phonetic order. Oh, and on a single napkin. And no, I don't have a pen."

    He needs to be taught a lesson. A number of them, actually.

    1. don't you hate it when you lose your account

      Re: Revenge needs to be had...

      While I understand the raging pent up resentment that is totally natural for us all to harbour, at least he owned up to past crimes. Maybe gie him a mountain dew bottle to pee into.

    2. Huw D

      Re: Revenge needs to be had...

      You require an encyclopaedic implementation of his pre-meditated orchestration of demotic


      1. David 132 Silver badge

        Re: Revenge needs to be had...

        Indeed. Interfrastically.

        I would venture that he is anispeptic, prasmotic; even compunctuous, to have caused us such pericombobulations.

    3. spuck

      Re: Revenge needs to be had...

      Careful on where your anger is directed. Just another programmer handed a list of requirements who did the best he could to do what the boss said and stay employed.

    4. LDS Silver badge

      Re: Revenge needs to be had...

      Sure, and those who pirate deserve:

      1) To be forced to make their own copy of a table to dine

      2) A toilet already full of s***t

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Revenge needs to be had...

        Why the assumption of piracy? Not everybody bought into the MS-DOS world, you know. We still had to deal with Redmond's mostly useless attempts at anti-piracy on family/friends/work equipment, though.

      2. Chris 239

        Re: Revenge needs to be had...

        Maybe, but back then MicroShaft * even (allegedly) blackmailed PC makers into not selling PC without a Microsoft OS so effectively applying a Microsoft TAX onto the entire PC market.

        That and other anticompetitive practices explains the hatred for Microsoft and lack of sympathy for your comment shown here.

        * other hateophones are available.

  3. Sceptic Tank Silver badge

    I never could understand why punishing your paying customers and treating them like criminals seemed like a good idea to Microsoft. It wasn't me pirating the software, I just paid good money for the thing. How often would you return to a shop if you had to prove your innocence before being allowed to exit after having just made a considerable purchase?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      ...and that's even before you're allowed to use the wretched stuff which is a whole other level of punishment.

    2. FIA Silver badge

      Microsoft had reached something like mid to high 90% penetration at that point, therefore pirated versions of windows were less 'use' to them (ie, in getting windows everywhere), however, now that windows was 'everywhere' it was financially worth it for them to try and crack down on the pirates to at least get some of them to pay. (Mainly poor unsuspecting victims of 'cheap computer sellers' using pirated versions I suspect).

      As for the customers, they have little choice, so.... <shrug>

      Ain't monopolys brilliant!


      (You could probably argue we've come full circle, computers are less of a 'thing', so few people care as much about MSs monopoly on the desktop anymore, and the nice stable business revenue stream means they care less again about the odd person pirating windows... hence why you get a discreet 'would you mind awfully paying' overlay on the desktop and little else).

      1. Loyal Commenter

        MS's main revenue stream is now SaaS, which is pretty hard to pirate. This is why they make it hard to find and buy a copy of Office 2019, much preferring to lock you into "Office 365".

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          "This is why they make it hard to find and buy a copy of Office 2019"

          Why bother? Just use LibreOfffice or OpenOffice.

          1. TonyJ Silver badge

            There are advantages to the corporate/education users though, to be fair.

            Compatibility. We've all seen businesses that run on spreadsheets. Yes, we all know it's wrong in the extreme but it happens. Still.

            The ribbon. Yes, I know most people here loathe it with a passion but you have to remember it's been around for an awful long time now and it's what some people are just used to. Even LibreOffice gives you the option to have a ribbon now (caveat - it did. I assume it still does? Been a while since I checked)

            OneDrive. Again, I know that there are options out there for hosting your own cloud storage such as Seafile but given the tight integration into Office, it makes life a lot simpler for some businesses. And it has all of the nice file rollback and version control built in - the former of which can actually become a real boon in the event of malware.

            Easy collaboration. Ok again I happily admit that it is again far from perfect. The implementation of it seems to struggle with larger documents but it does help with the problem that we've all experienced where people are all working on their own offline copy of a file and some poor sod has to merge all of the changes. Sling it on OneDrive and share a link.

            Outlook. I may be in a minority here but I quite like Outlook. It just tends to work.

            Other hosted services. Such as Exchange Online. Makes life simpler for smaller businesses that can't afford dedicated teams to feed and water on premise resources.

            Now I think it's worth pointing out that I am not trying to gloss over the inadequacies of the software/solutions, nor am I trying to suggest that there aren't viable alternatives to most of what I've just typed, but for most businesses / educational establishments, the ability to have all of the above features neatly packaged and accessible, and supported is a tempting offer for a few quid a month per user.

            Except the ribbon. Whilst I personally like it, I know...

            1. Loyal Commenter

              Does LibreOffice support OLE Automation, with the same API as Word and Excel? Yes, it's a shitty way of integrating third-party software, but it's one many businesses still rely on for things like reporting and mail-merging.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Ick. Hey software developers, offer .csv as an export option and let us sort it out. Go ahead and offer the Excel API as a paid option if you want, just let me get my data.

                Sage, I'm scowling in your direction!

            2. eldakka Silver badge

              Other hosted services. Such as Exchange Online. Makes life simpler for smaller businesses that can't afford dedicated teams to feed and water on premise resources.
              While cloud is certainly a boon for this situation, my take on being in that situation is that if you need computing services to run your business but can't afford those services (thus having to use cloud), then you aren't really a viable business anyway.

              It's like saying a bus service can buy buses, but can't afford the maintenance services needed to keep them running. That's just not a viable business.

              1. dgeb

                It's unfamiliar ground for me to be on this side of the cloud debate, but:

                No, it's like a bus service which leases vehicles under a contract which includes servicing and maintenance. I believe that isn't common practice for buses in the UK, but it is for many other vehicle types (such as wet-leasing for an airline, but also, I understand, HGVs).

                1. Chris 239

                  Same here because I've always worked for large companies that can/could afford their own servers and IT dept (aka busses and bus mechanics).

                  I'd say it is like a small startup bus company that doesn't have the capital or want to be in debt to to buy the bus and so leases the bus.

                2. eldakka Silver badge

                  No, it's like a bus service which leases vehicles under a contract which includes servicing and maintenance.
                  Sure, if you hire the expert to advise on what types of buses to get, what their seating configuration needs to be, their range, the number of buses, the seating capacity, the luggage capacity, how many you need, design the routes, create the billing systems, and so on.

                  Cloud services don't provide that. They assume you have the expertise to know what you want. I.e. IT architects, designers and so on.

                  Renting a MariaDB instance from a cloud provider when you don't know the differences between database types, what schema you need to create, what you need to interface it with, is pretty pointless.

                  If you need IT for your business to work, you need to hire IT-experts - even on a contract part-time as-needed basis - who can do all these services for you. Foisting it off to the cloud assuming 'the cloud' knows what you want is madness.

            3. hoola Silver badge

              A good analysis, for the enterprise you get what it is and most now just use Office 365 because it is a single point of management and subscription. Some may still have their own Exchange servers but before long even that will become a real edge case.

              For the SMB then Office 365 (Microsoft 365 now) is just a no brainer. Even if you have full time IT staff it is much easier to deal with than setting up alternatives. I have looked at the likes of Seafile and they do work but it all has to be patched and managed. It also does not integrate in the same way.

              One small business (5 people) I provided ad-hoc support for has just moved to Microsoft 365. For years I ran an email server locally but eventually it is just cheaper and easier to use MS. We were already paying for Office and the additional cost to add email was minimal. You still get your domain, a huge mailbox and no hassle. You just have to remember to pay. I looked at NextCloud and Seafile along with a ream of other similar concoctions and to be honest, it is just not worth the effort. So the data is on my server but I then have to deal with all the patching as well as being on top of the security. If you need to provide anything for audit or compliance then the MS option equally makes that easy.

              For most people the are not fussed where the data is, they just want it to be available when they need it.

              People use Office (including email) because it works, cross platform with pretty much the same experience. It updates itself and with the OneDrive integration makes it really simple.

              It is not just Microsoft, everyone is moving to subscription models as a way to provide predictable revenue streams and it stops the issues of pirated software dead in the water.

          2. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

            "Why bother?"

            Because all the fonts and styles and themes are different as between MS Office and the other Office products. If you have to wrestle with 50 documents a day it is such a tremendous drag.

            1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge


              apt-get ttf-mscorefonts-installer fonts-arkpandora

              Or just install whatever fonts your business's crayon dept decided on.

              Main problem with fonts - waaay too many of them.


              Set up whatever styles to match what your business's crayon dept. decided on. They're configurable.

              But basically, if you're a business that finds buying Office 2019 a problem because MS made it too hard, then why would you worry about compatibility?

          3. Twilight

            Because OpenOffice/LibreOffice have an incompatible spreadsheet application. I have a ton of spreadsheets with VBA macros in them and/or Excel-only functions (at least each of the couple times I've looked at Open/Libre Office I've found functions I needed not supported).

          4. Peter 26

            I think almost everyone prefers to use an alternative to Office these days.

            But there's always that one document you really need that isn't compatible with anything else.

    3. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      The real crime is having to the Rejects of Redmond.

      1. TonyJ Silver badge

        "...The real crime is having to the Rejects of Redmond..."

        No. It's that sentence...

        1. David 132 Silver badge

          Now, now. He accidentally a word. Or maybe even.

          1. TonyJ Silver badge

            Haha. Brilliant. Have an upvote.

            And even then, David 123, your sentence made more sense than his!

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      While auditing sites for my employer about 13 lives ago, I recall a number of them pointing at their fully legit Windows and Autocad installation CDs on the shelves… and respective, err, unofficial copies bought in a Bangkok bazaar which was what was actually installed on the computers, precisely to avoid downtime when the legal copy decided to doubt itself, which was quite often.

      1. jake Silver badge

        I seem to remember a lawsuit about that kind of thing ...

        ... that Microsoft lost. Can anybody jog my memory?

      2. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

        At least you had the boxes

        I worked somewhere where the boss tidied the software cupboard, Carefully kept all the CDs, and discarded the cardboard. Guess where all of the activation keys were?

    5. Trigonoceps occipitalis


      There was a theory that MS would rather someone used a pirated copy of Windows and/or Office rather that giving Linux and/or OpenOffice market share. That mean driving a fine line between making activation difficult but not too difficult to hack.

    6. heyrick Silver badge

      "I never could understand why punishing your paying customers and treating them like criminals seemed like a good idea"

      You'd think so, wouldn't you?



      And for the cherry on top of the cake? It will play every single bloody time and you can't skip or fast forward it. So the people who coughed up cash for the DVD get reminded over and over that piracy is a crime! while those who simply went and downloaded the thing don't get any such guilt trip because they never see the rubbish.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        There's also the matter of the "zero sum game fallacy".

        The software and entertainment industries create a lot of moral panic with this one.

        Every pirated copy is posed as a lost sale at an income loss equal to the total retail value of those copies.

        But in reality there is little validity to that argument. A great many, maybe most, pirated copies would never have been purchased instead. On the other hand some retail purchases may well have only been made knowing that they can be shared with mates as a quid pro quo. Certainly true of music CDs.

        It's not a zero sum game. The industry only loses money when it loses sales.

        It's illegal. It may annoy them. But whether the loss to the producers is anything like as big as they claim is a different kettle of ball games.

  4. trevorde Silver badge

    Made me move to Linux

    Got an ancient cr4top without an OS. The choice was to use one of my MSDN Windows XP activations or install Linux. The least friction option was Linux though I do miss Visual Studio every time I try to write some code.

    1. spireite Silver badge

      Re: Made me move to Linux

      Have you not heard of Visual Studio Code?

      1. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge

        Re: Made me move to Linux

        or even better VSCodium ?

  5. Dan 55 Silver badge

    "at the turn of the millennium it wasn't a given that every computer could be connected to the net."

    It's not a given now either, as b0rked electronic sinage everywhere and servers accessed by remote desktop over the LAN show.

  6. karlkarl Silver badge

    WPA on Windows XP is when I lost all passion for developing Windows software and moved over to FreeBSD.

    I want to own the software I buy and I want to only write software for operating systems I can own. Even though Microsoft kept throwing free licenses out to me via things like the MSDNAA, Dreamspark, etc... It was just worthless toilet paper (before COVID obviously).

    And now that Windows is a broken "service", I am really glad I made the leap then because knowledge of UNIX is actually what helped me get jobs compared to the hordes of other "beginners" at the time.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

    I've lost count of the number of times I've had to upgrade my PC but due to the lack of portability of applications (looking mainly at you, Adobe Photoshop) due to their activation schemes, I am forced to move the entire system from the old computer to the new. My present Ryzen 9 3950X 16-Core Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) system is the 5th reincarnation of what originally was an XP Ultimate 32-bit system a dozen years ago. It's been easier to do that and reactivate & upgrade Windows than deal with all of frikin application activations.

    1. Martin Summers

      Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

      AKA a 'Triggers broom' PC.

    2. Loyal Commenter

      Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

      I don't think I've quite got components in my current PC that came from my original beige box PC which I owned as a student in the '90s, but that's only because FDDs and ISA slots aren't a thing any more, and most MOBOs don't come with IDE slots either. I'm pretty sure some of the components are getting on for two decades old though, such as USB headers and the like, and some of the HDDs in there. The main driver for upgrading most of the components is when the MOBO needs replacing for one reason or another, which usually necessitates replacing the processor and all the DIMMs because the older memory isn't compatible. Anyone want to buy 16GB of DDR3?

      Trtigger's broom indeed.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

        Ship of Theseus.

        Why do today's yoof always think they have to re-invent the wheel, and then pat themselves on the back for it as if they had done something inventive?

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

          I don't think the late John Sullivan would have counted as "Yoof of today" and what he invented wrote ranged from funny to hilarious and always brilliant.

          A token to him---->

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

            I wasn't referring to John Sullivan. I was referring to the yoof blindly parroting his words. And pointing out that he, himself, was reusing old concepts (which I'm sure he knew ... see my reference to Open All Hours, above).

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

          Hardly today's youth.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

            Yes. Yoof. Relatively speaking.

            The OF&H episode was released in '96.

            Open All Hours did the same joke in '81. Why don't you use "Arkwright's broom"?

            My family has my great-grandfather's kindling hatchet sitting next to the wood stove. It's on its sixth head[0] and 13th handle[1]. My dad started calling it Theseus's axe before I was born.

            The Ship of Theseus concept existed at least 2400 years earlier than any of the above.

            [0] The original, out of the Sears catalogue in 1897, followed by hand-forged replacements made by Great Grandfather, Grampa, Dad, me, and my daughter. The grand daughter (age 10) is starting to learn how to make coat hooks, hinges & the like, so I'm sure she'll continue the tradition.

            [1] Near daily farm journals are a family tradition.

    3. David Hicklin Bronze badge

      Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

      My DVD drive decided to commit suicide the other week (sata power connector short, lots of magic smoke escaped) and that triggered the bloody reactivation.

      Thankfully I still had the original packaging (win7) and was able to type it in.

      1. katrinab Silver badge

        Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

        I have a USB Blue Ray writer in my box of stuff. It very rarely gets used these days.

        1. Loyal Commenter

          Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

          I have a Blu-Ray rewriter in my tower PC, which I think I bought 2 or 3 iterations back. It has never been used to burn a BR disc. I'm not sure I ever even bought any media. It is crazy how quickly we have gone through generations of removable media. At various times, I have used 5.25" disks, 3.5" disks, 3" disks (those weird rectangular ones in a hard case), Zip disks, Jaz diskx, CD/DVD/BR-R/RW (and various variations or writable/rewritable), compact flash (which were anything but compact), (mini/micro)-SD, Sony MemoryCard. (used by various phones, and the PSP), and various USB external disks and pen drives. I still have a USB "spy-watch" that someone bought me as a Christmas present with a 32Mb flash drive in it, which was already near obsolete when I was given it - cheap pen drives were at the 1Gb level at the time. Anyone remember the "memory cards" for the PS1 that were a great big plastic thing that cost about £20 and stored 128 Kb of data?

          At least we now seem to have settled (at least for a time) on MicroSD for things like phones and cameras, and USB pen-drives for removable storage. A lot of devices now push all your data to "The Cloud" now without you even thinking about it. Who can even predict what the next iteration will be?

          I don't think I'll ever burn a BR disc.

          1. Terry 6 Silver badge

            Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

            I slapped a second DVD (salvaged) drive in my PC a few years back. Now hardly even use one. I'm thinking of removing one and slapping in another HDD (also salvaged) instead.

            1. Loyal Commenter

              Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

              My current PC case has slots for three full-height drives. I've got a DVD rewriter and BR rewriter in there but rarely use either. I mean, drivers for things don't even come on disks any more, and the last time I needed to burn an ISO onto something, it was Win10 onto a bootable pen drive.

              I'm really at a loss for something useful to put in those drive bays...

              1. Terry 6 Silver badge

                Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

                The way I use the extra HDDs (My aging Dell has room for 5) is that when I replaced my last PC I kept the data by slapping it into the new one, nuking the C: drive for extra space and carrying on using it as my backup drive. Automated backups.

                Then when I salvaged a HDD from a TV recorder - that went in too. That contains a drive image or two (Macrium Reflect).

                I now have another hardly used HDD and it's tempting to replace one of the DVD writers- they aren't much use anymore. The only things holding me back are that I long since lost the bit of facia and that one of them ( the original one) might be tied to Windows Activation.

                <yay> back on topic </yay>

            2. A.P. Veening Silver badge

              Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

              May I suggest slapping in an SSD (salvaged of course)?

            3. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: The whole activation scheme for a lot of stuff drives me nuts.

              At one time I had 4 or 5 DVD drives in my main PC, which I used in parallel to convert my 500+ CD's to FLAC (well actually the first iteration was MP3, so I had to do them all again) and my probably thousandish, with TV series box sets, DVD's to ISO which now reside on my Omnios ZFS NAS.

              I think I only bought the Matrix on BluRay from the discount bin and I had it on DVD anyway.

              The "Media" server, aka my circa 2008 desktop, purrs quietly away in the corner taking up almost no space and not really requiring any intervention from me at all (yes I do have it all backed up off site). I watch Netflix mostly these days, but I have not even watched half of what is on that server yet.

              Every so often I am tempted to sell off the 5 or 6 computer tower case boxes full of nice shiny disks in their original cases that are sitting nearly forgotten in the crawl space, but then my consistence speaks up that it would be wrong....posting anonymously in case I change my mind some day.

  8. Blackjack Silver badge

    The key in XP was a joke

    I remember a freeware/shareware program that told it to you in case you "forgot".

    1. J. Cook Silver badge

      Re: The key in XP was a joke

      Ah, yes... the Jellybean keyfinder. Lovely program.

    2. Tomato Krill

      Re: The key in XP was a joke

      The key was in a sticker on the Pc it was hardly a secret - or it was entered from a VL agreeement in which case again, hardly a secret?

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: The key in XP was a joke

        Some of us built our own PCs back then. Most that did still do. So no "sticker". Shocking, isn't it? The concept of free will is lost on many these days, alas.

        1. LDS Silver badge

          So no "sticker"

          The sticker was on the CD box - of course if you actually bought a license... which when not an OEM one you can move from one computer to another. Always built my computers, always had a sticker with the key...

          Shocking, isn't it?

          The "freeloader" conceit...

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: So no "sticker"

            Why would I purchase a license for an 'orrible, buggy, crash-prone program-loader that I had no intention of using?

            I was hardly a free-loader if I wasn't free-loading. An apology would be nice. I'll take a beer in lieu.

            1. LDS Silver badge

              "Why would I purchase a license"

              So why you were complaining about the license or Windows product activation?

              1. jake Silver badge

                Re: "Why would I purchase a license"

                <mode=patient> Because I had friends/family/employers/clients who needed my services and so I was brought into contact with it.</mode>

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The key in XP was a joke

      There's still one which does it (among many other other things).

      Speccy, by Piriform. A free version and a pro one, which I use for troubleshooting PCs.

  9. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "as long as that hardware hash didn't change too much"

    Surely the essence of a hash is that even a small change in the underlying data probably yields a big change in the hash. A small change in the hash probably signifies a large change in the data.

    1. Alex Stuart

      I'd imagine the 'hash' he refers to was probably a concatenation of individual hashes calculated from different subsystems, so swapping out a graphics card or something would only change a portion of the data in the whole string.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        No dice.

        Every time I upgraded my graphics card - and with XP that was yearly, I had to re-authenticate with a call to Redmond HQ.

        I would have thought that a graphics card was not that important in the grand scheme of things - I'm not changing the motherboard, but obviously Borkzilla did not agree.

    2. F Seiler

      For cryptographic hashes yes. But there are also hashes explicitly designed to give similar output for close input. What close means is application specific, but could eg be a location in space, an edit distance of text, visual similarity....

  10. chivo243 Silver badge

    as long as that hardware hash didn't change too much

    LOL this is priceless!! How much is too much? When is too much not enough?

    1. rnturn

      Re: as long as that hardware hash didn't change too much

      One data point: Adding a SCSI controller (in order to add more disk space to an existing IDE-based system) to a working XP installation was "too much" enough to invalid the system to Windows. It only took a couple of hours to recover from that: by booting a Linux CD, transferring all the Windows data to the SCSI disks, and repurposing the IDE disks for Linux. Windows problem solved.

      1. Repne Scasb

        Re: as long as that hardware hash didn't change too much

        I had the "joy" of the telephone activation service after removing the a network card from an XP machine. It had been setup elsewhere and the network card was no longer needed as it was to be used in a studio, that didn't have internet and wasn't needed in any case. It still wanted to activate via a network, oblivious to the fact that it didn't have one. It was a very slow and painful process entering the 25 digits back and forth, took a couple of goes if I remember.

  11. Long John Silver

    Windows will eventually be free bait

    MS Windows is principal portal to a host of subscription features and marketing opportunities for MS and its "trusted partners". Also, by dabbling in open source and Linux it may decide to adopt the business model of commercial providers of Linux. That is selling maintenance and bespoke services to corporate enterprise.

    That way of doing things makes giving away instances of the base OS, but not the source code, a sensible move. MS hegemony enables it and 'partners' to gain considerable control over Internet activity and set up barriers to doings (e.g. 'piracy' of other software and distributed 'content') of which it and 'partners' do not approve. Cloud based subscription services are more easy to manage than selling discrete products.

    Desktop Linux will remain a niche for people seeking total control of their devices. It facilitates parring down the OS for bespoke purposes. Linux will support each of enterprise and 'Wild West' Internet activity; individuals bypassing and 'infringing' MS and 'partner' rights will be small beer in context of overall revenue flows and to be ignored.

    The future looks rosy for Microsoft so long as it can avoid anti-trust action against it.

    1. Boothy Silver badge

      Re: Windows will eventually be free bait

      To an extent, this is almost, but not quite, the case now.

      Windows 10 ISOs are freely downloadable direct from MS. At one time you either needed a real disk, or had to grab a pirate copy from somewhere.

      They can be installed on any compatible PC without a key, and If you don't activate Windows, all it does is lock out a few customisation settings, like changing to dark mode, or setting the wallpaper (although some of this can be bypassed anyway), and you occasionally see a water-mark in one corner of the screen. Plus of course no formal support from MS.

      But otherwise, it's a functional Windows, that still get all its updates etc.

      1. Loyal Commenter

        Re: Windows will eventually be free bait

        That "still getting updates" thing is crucial to Microsoft as well. They have been burned once, with pirated copies of XP floating a round which didn't get security updates, and thus because the core of many botnets. That was not good publicity for Microsoft and help cement its reputation for Windows being insecure, whether that reputation was earned or not.

  12. Binraider Silver badge

    Activation under XP, including hardware changes worked. Win7 fine too. I skipped vista and 8 like any sane person should, but 10, oh, 10. What have they done...

    A GPU change and new NVMe drive do not make a new computer. Online or phone activation did not work, and in fact was told go to buy a new license

    Make the DRM more inconvenient than piracy and people will pirate. Me, I've gone Linux full time. I'm not holding my breath for this to be improved anytime soon.

    What's that line in star wars? The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

    1. Boothy Silver badge

      Quote: "A GPU change and new NVMe drive do not make a new computer. Online or phone activation did not work, and in fact was told go to buy a new license".

      Separate changes, or done at the same time?

      Just asking, as I've seen a few people caught out by changing multiple items in one system at the same time, and then having re-activation problems as 'too much changed' in one go. It then seems to be down to luck of the draw who you get at the end of the phone support, when trying to re-activate via that route!

      I've also heard logging in via an MS account, rather than a local/LAN account, can help, as that gets the system associated with the account (not much use for business machines though, so more of a home thing). You only need to log in to the MS account once when initially activated, so it can 'phone home', then just user your local or whatever account as normal. Just log back into the MS account once in a while if any hardware is changed.

      So far I've not had this issue myself, and I've removed several older SSDs, replacing them with M2 NVMe drive, plus upgraded my GFX card, and never needed to reactivate yet. But each upgrade was done one at a time, usually with at least weeks between each change, and I'd log into my MS account just once after the change, then log back out and into my local account.

      As a side, I rebuilt an older machine (originally from ~2012) late last year, the motherboard, memory and CPU were the same (still in the MB), everything else was repurposed or new. Including a new SATA SSD, GFX and sound. Fresh install of Win 10 (multiboot with Linux & Win 7), was not expecting this to activate as the system had only briefly had Win 10 on back in 2015 (I installed the 'free' upgrade from Win 7 as a test, then put Win 7 back on!). I created a new local account during install (no network during install). Showed as not activated when logged into the local account (as expected). Plugged network in, left it to update itself. Once it had completed updates, switched to my MS account, system changed to activated! Switched back to local account, still activated!

      PS: Not saying I like the activation system! Would much rather not have it.

      1. Binraider Silver badge

        Separate changes, or done at the same time?

        There was about a week between the two. 970GTX replaced by 5700XT. Adding the NVMe was the point I decided to do a re-install and things went wrong.

        As a very long in the tooth Microsoft user/customer (like most of us, I suspect) the permanent-beta and crapshoot reliability are just one step too far. I've dabbled in linux for years, and these activation grumbles were the last straw. Mint is now my home PC, for all the plusses and minuses of that. I will only buy games that get linux releases or confirmed working hacks via Proton/Wine/Lutris.

        I have one rather expensive program (Propellerhead Reason) in Windows that remains the only reason to have a working environment. I ask the developers at every opportunity where's the Linux release. It already exists on Mac. Or, if it doesn't move there are DAW's on Linux that might be worth a shot.

        If enough people grumble and choose something else; eventually MS has to take notice, or they die. Either of those options are acceptable!

        1. jake Silver badge

          "there are DAW's on Linux that might be worth a shot."

          I set my non-computer oriented cousin up with Ardour several years ago. He and his band have been quite happy with it, both in the studio and on the road. Take a look, you might like it.

          1. Sudosu

            I actually just rolled Ubuntu Studio onto an older machine an few weeks back to give it a shot and it has a great variety of open source tools including Ardour.

        2. Boothy Silver badge

          Quote: "There was about a week between the two. 970GTX replaced by 5700XT. Adding the NVMe was the point I decided to do a re-install and things went wrong."

          Ah, so I'm guessing you fresh installed to the new drive, and hoped for the best (like any sensible or logic person would of course!).

          I've done this once so far, as in replacing the boot drive for an existing Win 10 install.

          Even though I wanted to do a fresh install, I assumed it would be problematic with Win 10 and activation, so I basically cloned the existing boot drive to the new one. Then unplugged the old boot drive (and put that to one side as a backup), setting up the new one as primary boot drive. (These were both SATA at the time).

          I booted up, and checked a few things, let Windows mess around with drivers etc, made sure it recognised the new drive, and that it still showed as activated, which it did. I then switched to my MS account and left that logged in for an hour, then back to me regular account. Still all looked fine, but I still wanted a fresh clean install (as clean as Win 10 gets anyway!).

          I shut down, stuck a fresh Win 10 USB in, and did a fresh install on the same new boot drive, wiping the drive. No network, and my local account only at this point. Obviously this showed as not activated on boot. Plugged network in, let it do it's thing, and at some point (no idea when as I went to do something useful instead), it then showed as activated. Logged into MS account, back to local. Still showed as activated.

          Complete PITA obviously, with a completely unneeded cloning activity, but it did work for me.

  13. Fading

    Arrrgh the suppressed memories......

    Are rising again .... Nurse! Nurse! More dried frog pills please.... After the curse of replacing hard drives, re-installing XP, a multitude of driver discs because the XP CD-ROM didn't have anything close to get the modem card working, only to have to re-activate windows by calling microsoft.... I think I'm coming out in hives....

    1. rnturn

      Re: Arrrgh the suppressed memories......

      Yeah. I seem to recall I had to burn a day of vacation to spend on the phone with Microsoft reactivating XP following a problem. I did that once. The next time XP scribbled on itself, that PC was converted to Linux. The idiocy of having to activate XP over the one phone was the reason that, one by one, all the XP-based PCs we had at home were converted to Linux.

  14. DS999 Silver badge

    Read only registry key?

    I didn't know that was a thing. How can they prevent you from changing them, given that the registry is stored in a file on a filesystem you could mount when the OS isn't running? I have a feeling this "security" is something that could be trivially defeated by 30 seconds of googling for the appropriate hackerware.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Read only registry key?

      It was good enough to keep YerDearOldMum from stealing pennies from under Redmond's sofa cushions, so in their eyes it was truly effective.

      Security at it's finest, that, and Redmond continues to blaze the trail ...

      ::golf clap::

  15. DJ

    A bit off topic

    but as we're waxing nostalgic...

    I was around, as were many here, for "DOS isn't done until 123 won't run." as well the time period when you could not buy a pre-built PC without MS-DOS in the US. Too bad SCO chose to score in its own goal. Sigh.

    To see Gates still whinging his fantasy "the (US) government was punishing us for being successful..." is enough to make one seek the restroom.


    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: A bit off topic

      "the time period when you could not buy a pre-built PC without MS-DOS in the US"

      That time period never existed.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: A bit off topic

        For my two (at the moment) detractors, when, exactly, was the period that I couldn't purchase a pre-built PC without MS-DOS installed on it?

        And when, exactly, was it that I was breaking the law by building and selling them to anybody who wanted one?

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: A bit off topic

          The average punter who wants to buy a PC 'cause these things are too complicated to build yourself doesn't know about the likes of you and all those here who can build them themselves.

        2. alisonken1

          Re: A bit off topic

          In the 1980's, I personally could not buy a computer from a major store without also purchasing MS-DOS. IIRC, I was told that those companies could not legally sell a bare-bones computer.

          Whether the legality was due to actual law or signed contract between major store and suppliers I leave up to you to search. (hint: one aspect might be related to

          IF I was lucky, the reseller might have the option of installing some other O/S - but that was my experience.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: A bit off topic

            And yet, all through the '80s I was in the US and selling personal computers, to all 50 states and Canada, without MS-DOS or anything else from Microsoft on any of them. Seeing as I never had a contract with Microsoft, they couldn't do anything about it ... if, in fact, they even noticed I existed.

            There were many other people you could purchase a personal computer from sans MS code, some smaller than I was, and some much larger.

            I hate Redmond as much as the next nerd, and for very good reasons, but I refuse to help perpetuate the vilification mythology. It doesn't do anyone any good to re-invent history to paint others in a bad light.

  16. Mage

    It's evil and malicious

    Working late till 2 am and the stupid MS office or Windows decides it's not registered after you had to change something.

    Then later they switch off servers.

    Now they hide the activation phone numbers. You type the HUGE list of numbers and too quickly the computer synthesised voice gives you the new number to type in.

    It's a totally abusive system, as is all DRM.

    And of course it wastes time of ordinary people and stuff is still pirated on a giant scale.

    DRM on video, ebooks, audio streaming etc is a lie. It makes money for the people selling DRM solutions, who are parasites. Books and movies are even commercially pirated before being available on eBook or DVD/BD.

    SO STUPID wasting the time of ordinary people.

    1. hoola Silver badge

      Re: It's evil and malicious

      I am not defending MS or the DRM stuff but the entire reason it is there is because these companies see a need to protect their investment. Reactivation is a real pain in the arse particularly when there is no apparent need, it just wastes time and drives legitimate people insane. The arguments along the lines of the software/film/CD is a rip-off etc are not an excuse to use pirated copies. If you don't want to pay then find an opensource, free or cheaper alternative. Now that can be an issue if you need Windows to run a certain application but if there are no alternatives, then the OS cost is part of the overall cost of the software.

      Most of the companies making a really big deal out of activation are large corporations that generally got to where they are by charging significant amounts of money for a product lots of people needed to use. It then became ubiquitous (monopoly?) and some have been taking the piss, increasing licensing costs and making compliance ever more onerous (Adobe).

      Equally there are some niche software solutions that require license servers, dongles or activation where they simply have not choice. If they didn't then the hard reality is that unscrupulous people will use unlicensed copies impacting their ability to provide support and upgrades for legitimate users.

      If you look at products such as Fusion 2020, Winner Design (both kitchen planning) and to some extent Sibelius (music notation) the investment to create, update and maintain is huge and the solution is used as a core part of a business to generate revenue. There are cheaper or free alternatives but they are simply not up to the job.

      Open source and freeware has it's place but there is equally plenty of people who are prepared to pay for a commercial product for the benefits. Just don't expect the benefits of "free" by using

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: It's evil and malicious

        If you don't want to pay fight the DRM then find an opensource, free or and cheaper alternative.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Try having a motherboard changed under warranty in your £2k %bigname% laptop and the engineer refuses to transfer the licences (looking at you Hemmersbach) because it's not part of the work order so windows refuses to activate causing you to have to buy a licence for a machine that should have a perfectly useable, legal licence

    1. Binraider Silver badge

      That's a new laptop, according to Microsoft!

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    py-kms is just very handy ;)

  19. ocelot

    Activating four computers on a ship in a river in Borneo

    I can remember being shipped out with four new PCs that had not had their Windows copies properly activated back at base.

    So I can remember having to borrow a portable Irirdium sat phone, write down all the codes on the screens of the PCs. Go upstairs onto the top deck, into the tropical sun, over where the engine room vents were roaring away blasting extra-hot air.

    The deck had a clear sky view otherwise, so I could phone up Microsoft in Singapore and recite and recieve all those many digit numbers over a semi-intelligible voice link.

    Fortunately the activation codes were copied down correctly and the machines worked.

    That was quite a nice assignment - the accomodation was a four star hotel , the commute to and from work on the ship was in a jet boat taking about 2 hours. For the first half of the journey I had 3G connectivity going down the river from Samarinda in Borneo. So I would sync up with the servers back at base and develop software, had to swap out the SIM from the Blackberry to my Nokia N95 to use as a modem. While my colleagues sat around dead bored.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You know that you can get a Windows license on eBay for 5 bucks? (leftovers from volume licences. They work well) It's hardly worth trying alternatives...

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