I can understand the desire and need for a company like Microsoft to employ some efforts to make sure people don’t pirate their software. They have a lot invested into Windows. It is commercial, and they have the right to make money off of it. Fine. But, does that mean they need to so severely limit the activation and use of Windows?

My Story

One of the first things I did when I got the new Mac Pro was to install a 30 day trial of VMWare Fusion and install Windows to it. Let’s run through this little experience:

  1. Even though I KNOW I bought a retail version of Windows XP at some point, I cannot find it. Nonetheless, I had OEM copies of XP all over the place from various computers I bought over the years.
  2. I try to use the Gateway “Dual Core Update Disc” for the Gateway machine I am phasing out. This is the restore disc. It does work inside VMWare Fusion, except that it will not boot up. The VM goes into an endless loop of blue screening, rebooting, rinse and repeat. So, I delete that VM.
  3. Next, I try another OEM restore disc that came with a computer I no longer use. I KNOW that these are OEM discs, but I figure I could install it as long as I was no longer using it on another PC. I figured wrong. While this next XP installation did work fine, I was unable to activate it due to either “incorrect product key” or “unauthorized product key”.
  4. I do some searching online and find that Microsoft has apparently disabled the ability to do internet activation on many OEM copies of Windows XP. So, I call them.
  5. I rattle off the installation code to the machine at Microsoft. It says it cannot complete the transaction so I end up talking to some Indian guy. Indian guy was friendly, but we went through the procedure and it did not work. He asked if this was an OEM copy of Windows XP. I say yes. He says that it will only work on the machine I bought it for and that it cannot be activated. I tell him that I am not using it on that computer anymore and that I would like to install it in a virtual machine. In other words, I’m not trying to run a second copy. I’m trying to MOVE it. No dice. He tells me I will need to deal with the original manufacturer of the computer and get a new product key, then call them again for reactivation.
  6. I have a valid upgrade disc to Windows Vista, so I figure I will try that. I proceed to upgrade the XP virtual machine to Windows Vista. It works fine, however Vista is just plain SLOW on this thing. The support for Vista is not as solid in VMWare Fusion as it is for XP. Plus, seeing as I have not added more memory to the Mac Pro yet, I am still using only 1 gigabyte of RAM. I assigned only 512 MB to the Vista virtual machine, which is absolute bare minimum for Vista. So, while I did get Vista to work and activate properly, it is hell to work with. I really want to use XP here, not Vista.
  7. At this point, I just want to get this thing done. So, I try yet another product key for XP on a new virtual machine and end up on the phone with them again. This time I ask straight up if I will be able to activate the XP installation later on using a different product key that I can buy retail later on. Correctly or not, he says no. Apparently, because it is OEM, it is simply not transferable. So, now, even though I have a working XP virtual machine, anything I do in there is going to be screwed up after Windows XP disables itself due to non-activation after 30 days.
  8. I pop in the car, head to Best Buy, and buy a full retail version of Windows XP. Come home, install it, activate it. All is well, except I had to spend more money for another XP disc when I already had several.
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It is frustrating that Microsoft places so many restrictions on OEM versions of Windows XP. My frustration comes from the fact that I was not trying to hack anything. These were legit copies of XP, yet I couldn’t use them. Simply ridiculous.

The Motto of the Story

If you want ultimate flexibility, make sure you buy a RETAIL version of Microsoft Windows. OEM copies are limited to the machine it is first installed on. Once you try to activate it on another computer, Microsoft will give you problems.

Also, there was some confusion as to whether anything changed in this regard under Windows Vista. The answer is no. At first, Microsoft did make it such that Vista could only be transferred to another computer one time – even from a retail version of Vista. Obviously that pissed off a lot of computer hobbyists who like to switch machines or build new ones often. Due to so many complaints, Microsoft did eventually modify the license agreement for Vista to allow transfers to new machines more than once. The same restrictions apply for OEM copies, however. You still need a retail version of Vista if you want to transfer the license to another computer.