What If Windows 98 Had Activation?

Or: Yet Another Reason Why ‘Activation’ Is Bad

There are already loads of articles out there explaining why ‘product activation‘, which made it’s first appearance in a piece of Microsoft software in their release of Windows XP, is a bad thing. Product activation, which you may already have experienced, works by making a ‘fingerprint’ of the unique hardware identifiers of your computer’s makeup. This fingerprint, and your unique serial number, are sent to Microsoft either over the internet or using an automated telephone service, after which Microsoft give you a response code that allows Windows XP to work normally. The theory is that this prevents software piracy – if you allow a friend to use ‘your’ serial number, Microsoft will see that the same serial number is now being used with two different ‘fingerprints’ and will deny your friend access to Windows.

Of course, this also means that if you repeatedly make significant changes to your hardware configuration, or you reformat your hard drive, you have to re-activate, and if you do this ‘too frequently’, you’ll look like a pirate, even if you’re not. The ‘activation’ system has come under fire for many reasons: that the ‘fingerprinting’ process being an invasion of privacy is a popular reason. That it doesn’t actually stop determined pirates, but imposes a great inconvenience on many honest users is another. But I’ve not yet seen an article anywhere that suggests a major issue with the system that I thought of while in the shower this morning:

What If Windows 98 Had Activation?

I have several friends who still use Windows 98. And why not? Apart from the fact that it’s still built on top of MS-DOS, it’s a reasonable and functional operating system. More to the point, it does everything they want out of an operating system, and it’ll serve them for years to come.

Microsoft were originally to discontinue support for Windows 98 on January 16, 2004, but this date has since been extended. But let’s pretend that, like all computer software, this particular version is no longer supported (it’ll happen). What then?

Well – that’s not actually a problem: my friends who use Windows 98 can carry on using it for the rest of their lives. If they have any problems with it, they can’t go whinging to Microsoft, ‘cos Microsoft won’t care (is this that dissimilar to their “supported” products?), but they can use it forever and ever for as much as anybody cares. But here’s the problem: suppose my friend needed to ‘activate’ his Windows 98 installation: what would happen? One day, he installs a new network card and it asks him to re-activate, but the internet activation fails. When he calls up the telephone activation service, he gets a recorded announcement stating that his choice of operating system is no longer supported, and he has to go out and buy a new one (and, probably, a new computer, too – on which to run it).

This is a scary thought. If I set up a Windows 2003 Server today (also requires activation), I want it to still be working in a few years time (upgrades aside). Perhaps I’m using it to deploy a centralised database for my business (I recently came across a business who are still using a thirty-year old piece of hardware to manage their data, running an even older operating system) – with Windows activation: this kind of longevity is no longer an option.

And, of course, the scariest point: what happens if, in the future, Microsoft goes out of business. Do we all have to “throw away” our then-useless (well… I say then-useless) copies of Windows?

It’s all very, very scary.


  1. Jon Jon says:

    Microsoft in “total bastards” shocker?

  2. Denyer Denyer says:

    What’s tended to happen with other manufacturers is that end-of-line products receive something along the lines of an authorised keygen. Or, since reverse-engineering is permitted (even by the DMCA) for purposes of interoperability, breaking the authorisation mechanism goes unchallenged.

    Naturally, they’re still bastards for implementing it in the first place. I’m going to be looking at other operating systems when 2000 no longer does what I want — and that’s due to Microsoft’s decision to inconvenience legitimate customers whilst the genuinely malicious walk straight through their security.

    A similar situation is occurring now with various games — the copied version is much more straightforward for users to get working than the copy they bought.

    Sheer fucking stupidity…

  3. Dan Q Dan Q says:

    Aye – I crack all my activation-based games, and re-route the traffic from all of those that repeatedly do online checks on their validity (even when I’ve bought them legitimately): why should I have to lose gametime and bandwidth just because I have a legal version and not a cracked one.

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