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8/28/2001
12:52 PM
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: 1,000 Posts Later: WPA Update

Fred Langa's last column about Windows Product Activation generated more than 1,000 messages in his Listening Post forum. This week, Fred presents some of the most thought-provoking and informative topics, along with a technical update.

You Listening Post readers are amazing! The column Is Windows XP's 'Product Activation' A Privacy Risk? generated an incredible number of reader responses.

There's good reason for the furor. Because Windows Product Activation is a mandatory and unavoidable element of the new XP Office/Office 2002 software and the XP operating system, it will affect millions of users.

However, the volume of WPA-related reader messages was so high that it was hard to keep up. Some excellent topics, comments, and amplifications may have slipped beneath your radar. Let's look at a few of the most interesting topics that arose.

Time Bomb?
One provocative subthread, raised by several readers, involved the Desktop Product Lifecycle Guidelines that Microsoft quietly published some time ago. There, you can see or calculate the dates after which Microsoft will no longer support various products. (For more life-cycle information, see the related site at http://support.microsoft.com/ directory/ discontinue.asp.)

For example, all support for DOS, Windows 3.x, and Windows 95 will cease as of January. Windows 98 and Windows NT have a couple years left, but will no longer be supported after June 30, 2003. And from now on, all new Microsoft products will have a basic three-year life (for full support), followed by a one year "extended" period (with partial support).

This guideline suggests that Windows XP will cease to be actively supported in 2005. The XP software itself will still work, of course, but many readers wondered what would happen when or if WPA kicked in because of a reinstall or system upgrade. It's not clear from the Microsoft documentation whether product reactivation services will still be continued for a unsupported product. If not, the XP software will only work for 30 days before the WPA "reduced-functionality" mode kicks in. Then, you either must upgrade to a newer, supported version of the software or do another full reinstall of the old software--and another, and another--every 30 days.

Building on this, some readers assume that WPA, combined with an arbitrarily finite product life cycle, is actually a way for Microsoft to continue moving users toward a subscription model, where you must--must--renew or upgrade your software on a schedule that Microsoft determines, rather than at a time of your own choosing.

On the other side of this topic, reader Dan Brooks--who's been extremely active and helpful in the posting area--wrote:

MS reps ... directly involved with WPA policy have stated that if WPA support ever ends, that is the phone and server infrastructure is terminated, MS will provide the means for end users to disable WPA. Possible scenarios include Windows Update or a patch or Service Pack. ...
Although Dan's note refers to the termination of WPA itself, that same approach--deactivating WPA--could also be used when or if WPA is stopped for just a particular product--say, at the end of XP's support lifetime. This would prevent XP from becoming a white elephant in a couple years.

But a lot can transpire between now and XP's scheduled end-of-support date in 2005, and no one can say definitively what will or won't happen then. Microsoft even builds in explicit wiggle room for itself. Most of the Microsoft WPA and product-life-cycle pages contain caveats that clearly state that Microsoft can change product support or WPA details as time goes on. There's simply no way to tell if XP will become essentially unusable in 2005.

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