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Making sense of Microsoft's confusing Windows activation rules


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Night Hawk

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Making sense of Microsoft's confusing Windows activation rules

By Ed Bott
March 26, 2012, 4:04pm PDT

Summary: Last week, Microsoft cut the number of Windows and Office product keys it includes for TechNet subscribers. Readers tell me that doesn’t matter, because every key is good for multiple activations. But is that really true? My investigation says yes, although exact details are murky.

Over the years, I have written tens of thousands of words about the mysterious workings of Microsoft’s Windows activation technology in XP, Vista, and Windows 7. It might be one of the most arcane and misunderstood technologies of the PC era.

Last week, the topic came up again when I published details about Microsoft’s decision to cut the number of Windows and Office product keys it includes with TechNet subscriptions. (See “Microsoft slashes product key allowances for TechNet subscribers.”) Two years ago, a TechNet subscription included 10 product keys for each version of Windows and Office. That number was cut to five in late 2010, and to three earlier this month.

A half-dozen readers left Talkback comments and sent emails telling me that it’s “well known” that each TechNet product key can be activated 10 times. Several quoted Paul Thurrott, who wrote in 2010, without citing a source, “Each product key can be used to install up to 10 versions of the OS or application, for the most part.”

So, they say, no big deal—three product keys equals 30 installations per Windows and Office version.

But is that true?


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