Microsoft, Vista activation researcher butt heads

Microsoft refutes claims that Vista's activation can be delayed as long as a year

Microsoft Monday declared that a technique to delay Vista's activation as long as a year just "doesn't work." The researcher who published the activation extension claimed otherwise.

"A quick analysis determined that this purported workaround doesn't work," said Alex Kochis, senior product manager of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), in an entry on the team's blog.

The blog has been Microsoft's sole public response thus far to reports last week in Computerworld and elsewhere of research published that day by Brian Livingston, the editor of the Windows Secrets newsletter. Then, Livingston showed how a single change to Vista's registry lets users put off the operating system's product activation requirement for an additional eight months.

Kochis also explained the purpose of "rearm," another Vista command that lets users delay activation for an additional 90 days beyond the 30-day grace period. "Rearm is used to reset the activation grace period timer to 30 days as one of the final steps the builder of the image will perform," Kochis said. "Doing this enables the builder of the image to ensure the customer has the full 30-day period in which to activate."

Last month, Livingston detailed rearm, which has a built-in limitation of being called three times. Along with the 30-day grace period, rearm can push product activation out to as long as 120 days after the PC first boots. At the time, Microsoft seemed unconcerned with the disclosure and said that using it would not violate the Vista End User License Agreement (EULA).

Kochis went on to say that SkipRearm, along with rearm and another installation image building tool, dubbed "sysprep," would not give the results Livingston claimed. "Skiprearm enables someone to run the sysprep command but without [emphasis in the original] actually using one of the three rearms," Kochis said. "[But] when the skiprearm bit is flipped, the rearm command can be used and will appear to succeed when it fact it is failing to extend the grace period timer."

Microsoft declined to make executives or developers of its WGA program available for interviews to discuss or elaborate on their rejection of Livingston's findings.

Livingston, however, wasn't shy. "As far as I know, the SkipRearm key in the registry has no effect on changing the Vista activation deadline when used with Sysprep," he said. "I never said that Sysprep could extend Vista's activation deadline more than three times. Alex Kochis has simply demonstrated that something I didn't say is false."

Instead, Livingston said, he and his team tested "slmgr -rearm" and SkipRearm combination on three different versions of Vista. "It worked on all of the versions except a Home Premium [edition of Vista] purchased in March 2007. We're guessing that the behavior was slip-streamed out of Home but remains in business editions because it's needed by IT administrators," he said.

Tests clearly showed that SkipRearm and slmgr added eight additional months to Vista's activation delay, Livingston said. After taking an inactivated version of Vista through the process, Livingston ran slmgr to check the amount of time left before activation was required. "The value was repeatedly shown to be 43200 or 43199, indicating that the reboot had reset the value to 30 days," said Livingston.

The conflicting charges were confusing, and not just to outsiders.

"There are many features of Vista that are simply not documented well. SkipRearm is one of them," said Livingston. "Is it possible that there is some other interaction that affects these commands? Could the interval between multiple uses of SkipRearm affect whether or not it continues to work? Someone needs to test all five versions of Vista to find out."

In related news, one of the support documents cited by Livingston in his discussion of SkipRearm is now unavailable. Microsoft did not reply to questions on whether that document was pulled.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld

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