Vista Licensing: Part I

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There’s been a number of articles the past number of days saying that Vista’s licensing terms are rather more restrictive than XP’s.

This article tries to claim that this isn’t so, then seeks to reassure the average reader by saying in effect, “Don’t worry, this only hurts hardware enthusiasts, and who cares about them?”

Wow, that made me feel a lot better!!! How about you?

Three Scenarios

Taking the terms of the Vista licenses and the clarifications found in the abovementioned article, this is what appears to be the situation:

Situation #1: You are a very honest person who buys an OEM copy of Vista for your system. In the due course of events, you decide you need a new motherboard, maybe a new CPU, too. You do the deed, and behold, you can’t automatically reactivate again.

You call up Redmond, and you can do one of two things. You can be honest, or you can lie.

If you are honest, and tell Redmond, “There’s nothing wrong with the mobo, I just wanted a new one, and I’m going to sell the old one to my cousin,” Redmond’s going to tell you, “You’re buying a new copy of Vista, Charlie.”

If you lie and tell Redmond, “My dog ate my mobo,” then they’ll reactivate you. Moral of the story: It pays to lie to Redmond.

Situation #2: You are a very honest person, and you buy a retail copy of Vista. You do the same thing, and reactivation doesn’t work here, either.

You call up Redmond, and you can do one of two things. You can be honest, or you can lie.

If you are honest, Redmond will activate you, but you’ve eaten your one transfer. Your honesty has earned you a downgrade from retail to OEM license.

If you lie and tell Redmond, “My dog ate my mobo,” you don’t (apparently) eat your one transfer. Once again, dishonesty is better.

Situation #3: You write for a hardware site. Your job is to test motherboards. In the past with XP, well, you “found” a copy that doesn’t require activation, naturally, and that’s what you used to test, because you didn’t want to call Redmond more often than Bill Gates does while on the road.

With Vista, there isn’t such an activation-free beast any longer. What happens to you? God only knows. You really can’t lie and tell them “my mobo broke,” that gets a little stale after the tenth or twentieth try. Maybe the person in Redmond knows who you are and reactivates you; maybe that person doesn’t, and won’t.

What is a hardware site supposed to do? Buy umpteen copies of Vista a year? Just what are they supposed to do?

Yes, in all three scenarios, one could always sell the OS along with the mobo and/or hard drive, but it’s none too clear what happens when the buyer tries to activate, or what his exact rights are after you’ve sold it.

A Better Idea

It is incompetent for MS or any apologists for MS to say in effect, “Spelling out the rules for people like you is just too tough for us, so we won’t. Go buy another copy.”

It is certainly masochistic unethical, not to mention stupendously stupid, to essentially reward people for lying to you AND make it much easier for people pursuing legitimate activities to do so illegally rather than legally.

It seems to me that a much, much better way to handle activation is to adapt what MS essentially is already doing for OEM copies of the OS: the motherboard is the machine, and to adapt their policies around that.

We’ll suggest how tomorrow.


Yesterday, we promised a simpler approach to activation.

This is desirable because MS has been silent about too many areas of its licensing, both in the past, and now, when it comes to hobbyists like us.

This hasn’t been too big a problem in the past mainly because, well, the Dark Side has allowed many hobbyists to avoid the activation issue altogether with XP.

There is good reason to believe going to the Dark Side won’t be as easy with Vista, so these issues need to be addressed.

Well, here is our modest proposal. It’s a two-step program:

  • Use the current means to identify a motherboard in the activation as the sole means of hardware identication and
  • Allow for a deactivation procedure.

    MS could run it this way:

    OEM licenses: The license goes with the mobo. If you sell the mobo, you sell the license, too (and no doubt charge more for it). The buyer gets a machine that will activate with the old product key.

    Mobo breaks? Contact MS, just as you would now, but you would call to deactivate the broken mobo. If you were telling the truth, the current key would work with the new mobo, and the old mobo doesn’t matter because . . . it’s broken.

    However, if you weren’t telling the truth, when the buyer tries to activate using the old product key, it will no longer work, and he’ll have to get himself a new copy.

    Retail licenses: The license stays with the owner, if he chooses, through owner deactivation. The owner of a retail license can choose to sell the license with the mobo just like with the OEM license, or he/she can choose to deactivate a mobo (either automatically, or via telephone) prior to replacing it. The new mobo will use the old product key, as many times as the owner changes mobos. If the deactivated mobo finds a new home, fine, the new owner will need a new OS.

    What happens if someone forgets to deactivate? One can deactivate over the phone, which one would do quite quickly when activation doesn’t work with the new mobo.

    That certainly would make the lives of frequent swappers/hardware testers much easier, plus MS wouldn’t have to keep track of that “one transfer” rule.


    No doubt people would want OEM licenses to have the same privileges as retail licenses. That would be almost as popular as free copies of Vista for everyone, and about as likely to occur. MS needs something to distinguish between the two licences, and this proposal merely follows current principles.

    MS might have to change the mobo marking a bit; it may have to become more complex to prevent mobo spoofing, and one wouldn’t want to base it on a mobo component that could fail, but leave core functionality unimpared and/or are replacable (i.e. Ethernet, wireless, integrated video), but they’ve played with those configurations before and no doubt will again. It should be noted that this would be a lot simpler for MS to maintain than what they’re doing now.

    Privacy? That horse left the barn with activation, then died. I’m not going to beat that corpse of a horse.

    The only real problem I see is the instance of someone selling a non-broken mobo with an OS to someone with an OS and a broken deactivated mobo, but in the great scheme of things, that’s probably something the world could live with.

    What this would do is remove the legal limbo and FUD surrounding transference of equipment and activatophobia thereafter. It would establish clear-cut rules people could follow. And, last but not least, it would let hardware reviewers try to break equipment, not laws.

    It seems to get the job done, but I could be wrong. Do you see a problem, a hole, in this? If you do, send me a note.

    P.S.: By a problem, I mean something that makes this unworkable, for either users or MS. Not liking or wanting this is NOT a “problem.”


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