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Windows XP - An Introduction

Microsoft has just launched two versions of Windows XP.

Windows XP Professional is the preferred choice for corporate networks.  It uses the same kernel of Windows 2000, offers the same security options, and connects seamlessly to existing Windows NT/2000 domains.

Windows XP Home Edition is the successor to Windows 98 and Windows ME. This seems to be a good option for home users and small businesses. They can upgrade Windows 9X desktops to this version after all, itís based on the same Windows 2000 kernel as the Professional version. Unfortunately, the Home Edition can access domain resources, it canít join a domain. The new simplified sharing and security interface in Home Edition also prevents administrators from securing files and folders properly.

Windows XP has an impressive software compatibility list and some cool tools that can break through compatibility roadblocks with older applications. Unfortunately, there are also some problems on the Hardware Compatibility List. It does well with newer USB and IEEE 1394 devices, but be wary of older devices. A significant number of popular devices manufactured in the last two years wonít include out-of-the-box drivers. One should pay special attention to the status of scanners, video cards, and LAN adapters.

No single feature of Windows XP has inspired more controversy than Windows Product Activation (WPA). This antipiracy technology, which will be embedded in every retail copy of Windows XP, is aimed at deterring casual copying by forcing home users and small businesses to activate the product within 30 days after installation.

The existence of WPA makes it more important than ever for IT professionals to switch to volume licensing programs, which are exempt from activation requirements. Microsoft offers a wide range of licensing options. The Open License program, for instance, offers discounts for as few as five licenses; one can mix and match products from a long list that includes Windows, Office, and a slew of developer tools.

Upgrading Windows 95 machine is not supported. Upgrades over Windows 98 and Windows Me are possible, but still dicey, thanks to misbehaving applications and incompatible device drivers. Upgrading over Windows NT 4 has its own set of pitfalls, too, because of the many architectural changes between NT 4 and Windows 2000/XP.

Windows XP Professional is loaded with options like Windows Media Player, Microsoft Movie Maker, Windows Messenger, and a slew of games that make perfect sense on a home computer but might not be welcome on a business network.

Since Windows XP went Gold on Aug. 24, the conspiracy theorists and corporate planners have been hard at work. Contrary to the beliefs espoused by the Oliver Stone DOJ advocates, Microsoft did not rush XP to market to beat some artificial government deadline and avoid an injunction.

As an update to the rock-solid Windows 2000 kernel, Windows XP is the most stable kernel yet. More importantly, the release of XP signifies the merger of two operating-system code bases the DOS-based Windows 9x and Windows Me and the more robust Windows 2000 kernel into a single, robust, reliable, and secure code base.

XP also has an updated interface (although you can configure it to use the familiar Windows 2000 interface) and remote assistance using NetMeeting-style remote application control. This release also includes drivers and built-in support for 802.11b wireless networking. Two of the most controversial features are the inclusion of Windows Media Player 8 and product activation. 

What is product activation?

When a consumer installs a shrink-wrapped copy of Windows XP or boots a PC thatís been preinstalled with Windows XP, the operating system will ask the user to activate the software. Although Windows XP will continue to operate normally for 30 days from the first boot or upgrade, it will cease functioning on day 31 until the software is activated. The activation agent of Windows XP uses the local hardware configuration and a one-way mathematical algorithm to create a hardware hash key.

This hash key is either uploaded to Microsoft via an Internet connection or called in to a product activation representative by the user. This one-way algorithm cannot be decomposed to return the usersí hardware configuration, thus protecting the userís privacy.

The need for product activation

Microsoft designed product activation for Windows XP to eliminate the most common form of consumer-driven piracy casual copying. Users typically violate the end user agreement in this way unknowingly, because they don't fully understand what they have committed to by purchasing the software. Many consumers pass around software CDs to share the way they pass around music CDs, unaware that one constitutes piracy while the other constitutes fair use. Industry trade groups estimate that over 50 percent of all economic losses due to piracy are the result of casual copying.

How does this affect enterprise customers?

Much to the chagrin of the conspiracy theorists, the inclusion of product activation in XP has minimal or no impact on corporate customers. Customers who acquire their licenses through volume licensing programs will not have to activate the software before installing it. Instead, they will be issued a Volume License Product Key (VLK) to use when installing products that require activation. The VLK can be used with Microsoft deployment tools like unattended setup or CD imaging so that users are never prompted to enter product keys during installation. VLKs will work only with the versions of Windows XP loaded on the Select CD or other volume licensing CD media. This prevents users from taking their VLK from the office and attempting to use it during the install of full packaged retail products on their home PC.

If you are an enterprise customer who is licensed to install Windows XP, you will get a letter from the Microsoft Activation Center in the next few weeks detailing how to contact the Activation Center to acquire your VLK. You should take serious measures to protect your VLK. If PCs outside your company start turning up with copies of Windows XP installed with your VLK, Microsoft can directly trace your VLK to those PCs.

How does this affect small-business customers and consultants? For consultants who spend a lot of time reconfiguring their systems by adding or removing devices, activation can be a real inconvenience. Once the hardware hash key changes to the point that it no longer matches the prior generated key, you will have to call the Microsoft Product Activation center to get a new key issued. Of course, this applies only to purchasers of full retail packaged products (and upgrades) and to new PCs purchased from a manufacturer. Since most small companies and independent consultants acquire their licenses through this channel, they will be affected the most by activation.

Itís important to point out, however, that companies with as few as five PCs can qualify for product licensing under Microsoftís open license program. If youíre a small company investigating your options for upgrading to Windows XP, you should look into buying these upgrades from a local MS reseller or from an online licensing source, such as License Online. This also may affect future PC purchases, since youíll want to buy PCs without any preinstalled software to take advantage of the open-license pricing and to avoid the requirements of product activation.

Will product activation affect your decision to upgrade to XP?

Will your company stay with your current version of Windows for the time being to avoid dealing with product activation? Do you think this new requirement will have a long-term effect on Microsoft? Send us your opinion on product activation.