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Why Windows Genuine Activation sucks

September 26th, 2006 by André Nogueira

Even if you don’t use Windows, it’s almost certain you’ve heard about activation – when you install Windows you can use it only for a few days without activating. After that, you’ll need to activate it (ie. communicate with a Microsoft server to tell it you’ve just installed Windows, and receive a message saying if it was successful or not) or it you’ll only be able to start Windows in safe mode.

But does Windows Genuine Activation (WGA) work? Not likely. Is it completely transparent and hassle-free for legitimate, paying customers? Maybe in a parallel universe, but not on Earth.

Being a beta tester for several companies I format my computers all the time. I have a handful of licences, but I don’t keep track of what licence is installed on what computer – the family computer has an OEM version of Windows installed, and on all other computers (which get formatted at most once a week) I use the first product key I can grab. I have 3 full XP licences for 2 computers, so I’m certainly not a pirate, right? Not according to Microsoft.

I don’t know how many activations you’re allowed to have during a given time period, but I’ve lost count of the number of times Internet activation failed because I had activated “too many times”. When this happens you have no alternative but to call – not too big a deal, right? Wrong. I don’t know how it’s like in the rest of the world, but at least in Portugal there are two phone numbers – a regular paid one, and a toll-free one. The problem? More and more people don’t have fixed phones anymore, just mobile phones, and here in Portugal you can’t call the toll free number from your mobile phone – you get a signal like the number didn’t exist. If you want to activate from a mobile phone, you have to pay the 10 minute phone call (this includes trying to activate by phone, hearing all the instructions you can’t skip – I’ve tried countless times – and explaining what happened to the operator you’re transfered to when activation fails).

Furthermore, your copy isn’t deactivated when you uninstall. Imagine you work on a small business which owns a boxed version of, say, Office. You’ll be doing a presentation later that week, so you install Office 2003 on your laptop, since now you only have Office 2000. You install and activate, but something went wrong with the upgrade – addins stopped working, random crashes… You format your computer, and install and activate Office 2003 again. This time everything works, but at the last moment you find that your laptop is too old to play that embeded video in your presentation, so you uninstall Office and install and activate it on your boss’s brand new laptop. Chances are you’ll have a problem activating, even though these are legitimate uses – you can have the boxed version installed on only one computer, which was the case here. However, because programs aren’t deactivated Microsoft thought Office was installed in 3 computers at the same time when in fact it was installed in only one. Trying to convince the operator that you’re not breaking the licence can be though, or at least take some time. And if you think this was just some made up story of what could happen, think again – this happened to me last Sunday.

But think about it – just who is prevented from installing pirated copies of Windows? Have pirated copies of Windows stopped circulating? They haven’t – on the contrary, with the widespread usage of peer-to-peer software it’s never been easier to find cracked software, including software which requires activation.

So to sum up… Is WGA serving its purpose? No, and I honestly don’t believe WGA in Vista will be any different. What WGA is doing – and it does this brilliantly – is annoy paying customers, preventing them from doing their work. I’ve lost count of the number of times I went to some company to prepare the computers for some presentation later that week, and ended up having to install OpenOffice.Org because I couldn’t activate their copies of Office. If anything, WGA is the #1 reason for people to stop using Office and Windows.

Resources which are currently being wasted with WGA could very well be used for more interesting projects – perhaps make some Microsoft Research prototypes a reality, or creating new products all together. As it is, WGA is doing nothing more than making Windows, Office and other products which use it a bit more expensive because of the money spent on developing and maintaining it.

Edit: It was suggested in the comments section that I simply don’t activate Office and Windows, since I will be reinstalling them anyway. Since Office (at least all the versions I’m using) limit you to opening Office applications X times, I have to activate. I can’t take the chance of needing to edit a document or make a presentation, and have Office tell me “Sorry, you can’t – you need to activate”. Regarding Windows, it could work if it weren’t for the fact that without activating I can’t get access to Windows Update and a lot of downloads on Microsoft Download Center. To be able to fully use those two services, you need to have an activated copy of Windows (not all downloads from the Download Center require activation, but many do).

Posted in Computing, Microsoft, MS News, Windows Vista, Windows XP | 11 Comments »

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 26th, 2006 at 8:09 am and is filed under Computing, Microsoft, MS News, Windows Vista, Windows XP. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

11 Responses

  1. Prox Says:

    I live in Belarus, and got the same problems every month with Windows XP and Office 2003. I have 4 PC’s at home, and got all licenses for MS soft. But the activation process via phone call to another country (where no MS in Belasus, so i need to call Microsoft Russia) a bit borring me. But don’t borring my friends who have use non-legit XP and Office. I pay hundreds dollars per one product, they have payed 3$ per DVD.

    sorry for an unfluent english.

  2. Patrick S Says:

    Like you say andre it seems the genuine customers loose here and the dis-honest ones are the winners. Quite true in your case and in mine to some extent-Continusly formatting computers and installing with the first licence u can get does get troubblesome indeed… However tollfree numbers are free here (finally something good in New Zealand regarding communications). The team at the call centre (yes its in New Zealand, thank God its not in India or something) are very understandable… I explain I am a tester and they usually sort me out ASAP. Ocasionally you run into the odd person who dosent care and dosent want to help but as I said…other than that, good.
    WGA is only going to get worse with vista coming up, being new and such I bet that it will be beefed up to stop those pesky crackers.

    Kristan can supply you with all the CD keys you need 😉


  3. Benedict Hugger Says:

    For the “normal” user, that will re-install Windows every 2-3 years, activation itself will not be a problem. If they only own a mobile phone, surely those 10 minutes won’t be breaking their budget. And if they like, they can write down the activation numbers and call from work or friend – toll free.

    For the “power” user, we know that following each installation you have a 30-day grace period during which you can use Windows without activating it. Office will allow you to open documents after this period, but you can no longer save.

    WGA will prevent you from activating Windows/Office on 3-5 computers on a single day. Fair enough. That’s not enough to say that is sucks.

    My solution for you: don’t activate so quickly! You might get an annoying “You need to activate” message, but you could surely live with that. After a couple of days, when you confirmed that you installed on the correct computer and that everything works – THEN activate. If you really need to. From your story, chances are you will re-install soon enough anyway.

  4. André Nogueira Says:

    Hi Benedict,

    “WGA will prevent you from activating Windows/Office on 3-5 computers on a single day. Fair enough. That’s not enough to say that is sucks.”

    I can assure you that isn’t so – sometimes two activations a week is enough to stop Windows/Office from activating. About Office, it doesn’t stop working after X days – it stops working after you open any Office application X times. Given that I could take the change of trying to open the presentation and having Office tell me “No can do, please activate”, I had to activate. It’s just one of those times you have to be 100% sure it will work.

    About not activating Windows because I will reinstall it anyway, I’ve tried but there’s a small big problem – you can’t download updates, or anything that requires Windows Genuine Advantage from the Microsoft Download Center. I could download from another computer and copy it to the unactivated computer, but given the fact that I have several legitimate licenses I shouldn’t have to.
    Good thing you pointed it out – I forgot to include it in the post.



  5. Benedict Hugger Says:


    Ahh… forgot about Microsoft “recent” move to prevent updates for non-activated copies. That does make it a bit*h. 🙂

  6. Patrick Elliott [MS] Says:

    I will have someone followup on this Andre, thanks —

  7. Aj Collins Says:

    I have to agree with you Andre. I hate having to call MS to activate every time I reinstall Windows XP on all of my computers. Here are the reasons I have a problem with calling MS every time I need to activate:
    1. It takes wayyyy tooo long to get some one.
    2. It costs Air-time on my phone
    3. I can’t under stand what some of the reps are saying sometimes. Not trying to be mean or anything.
    4. When I call they are always in the middle of a SKU clean up or something.

    A lot of the time I just use an activation crack or something but it’s kinda sad having to use a crack on something I just paid $105 for. Also the new WGA tool called my OEM copy of XP invalid and kept nagging me. Finally I reinstalled XP and it went back to normal. I know and respect Microsoft that they have to protect there products but they need to find a better way of doing things.

  8. Andre Nogueira Says:

    Today I formatted a friend’s Toshiba laptop, using a XP Home OEM CD, and the key on the sticker on the bottom of the computer. It installed fine, but when activation came… It said the key was incorrect. Not that it was blocked, but that it was incorrect. So to the setup program the key is fine, but for activation it isn’t? *endless rant here*

    Oh well… I believe there’s nothing more I can add to what I already said, this is just more proof that activation only keeps paying customers away, while not doing anything to prevent piracy…

  9. robert Says:

    Is there a certain limit of how many times you can activate windeos untill it thinks its counterfit ? i have a orngional copy but im to scared to use it incase i hit the limit :S

  10. Techpriest Says:

    For the computer professional that fixes PCs this is a major pain. I have to call them 2-3 times a week. This is why I do not recommend my users upgrade beyond Office 2000. It works well and the features the later versions add don’t justify the hassle I have to go through every time I need to reload Office.

  11. ITVetran Says:

    No one would pirate their software if they would just make it affordable! I say do away with WGA completely! Focus on the root of the problem ($$costs) and not the symptom (pirating). I’d gladly pay $80 for an OS or any other MS product (i.e. Office)but to expect $200 to $300 is a JOKE! For the record: MS makes hundreds of millions of dollars off of corporate America already with its volume licensing plans. That alone supports all R&D costs associated with bringing a product to market and then some… So why not sell it to the public sector at a reasonable price!!! THAT WOULD STOP PIRACY!