Licensed to confuse

The relationship between Microsoft and its customers over licensing has always been a confused one, especially in the home/SoHo market. Things are better in the professional and business space, where Microsoft has signed up most of its customers to rolling licence solutions that make it more straightforward to buy appropriate licences, although even here there’s still some confusion.

Licensed to confuse

In the home/SoHo space, things are way beyond murky. Some of the statistics quoted by Microsoft make for mind-boggling reading, since they suggest there’s rampant piracy going on more or less everywhere. On the other side of the fence, you have the views of many of Microsoft’s customers, such as “Windows is a tax” or “it comes on every machine anyway”, or “why shouldn’t I upgrade all my machines from the same CD; after all, I already have a licence, don’t I?”

None of this has been helped by the advent of product activation. I accept that this procedure has enabled Microsoft to prevent a single install key being “sold” and reused by every vendor at your local flea market, because it can now turn off support for a specific key if it needs to. Yet the reality of what will or won’t work when it comes to reactivation still isn’t clear to me, and if I don’t understand it then I’m sure many end users won’t either. And just what is the real difference between an OEM licence and a shop one? It’s still Windows XP Home, for example, isn’t it? Why does one get rights that the other doesn’t, and how do I tell one from the other?

All this has come to a head with the new Vista launch: not only are there myriad versions to choose from, but some are available only via the business licensing programme, while others are available through the retail shop, boxed product route, and some only come pre-installed with new PCs (OEM versions). If things are complex, they’ve just become worse. So what has Microsoft decided to do? Make things clearer? Rewrite the EULA so that we can understand it? No, it decides to sneak some new terms in there in the hope that we’re not paying attention.

The first was a real nuclear strike of a condition: you could now take your Windows installation and move it over to another machine, but only once. In other words, the first PC could transfer its licence to a second PC, at which point the second PC becomes the licensed computer. This second machine, however, can’t transfer this licence to a third PC. Now, bear in mind that these might have all been the same machine.

I might buy a box, a motherboard, some RAM, an Intel processor, graphics card and so forth and build myself a top-notch gaming platform today. Then, in six months’ time, suppose that AMD becomes the preferred processor for advanced gaming, I swap my motherboard and processor. This change is probably enough to trigger the “new machine” checkpoint. Then, a few months later still, I decide to add a new graphics card, some more RAM and change my hard disk. This might again be enough to fire a “new machine” checkpoint, and any subsequent changes will now not be allowed because I’ve run out of “new machine” licence transfers, despite the fact that this is still the machine on which I originally installed Windows, only with updates and component swaps applied.

It was obvious that the advanced gaming community would rise up in arms over such nonsense, and sure enough Microsoft has been forced to climb down. Note, however, that the climbdown applies only to the box copy of Windows Home Basic and Home Premium, but doesn’t apply to the OEM pre-install where things remain as before – the OEM licence is locked to one machine, possibly even via BIOS boot-checking.

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