Sunday, September 30, 2007

Microsoft Vista Waster

Computer and software manufacturers have turned computers from a convenient tool to a means of dictating to us what to buy next. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to updating equipment. Our reliance on computers has become almost absolute, and as hardware and software keep developing, updating equipment has become an inevitable part of our lives. Far from being easy this is a process fraught with problems and potential failure, the worst-case scenario being a migration from one computer to another.

The following observation on a recent computer migration where the excitement of new, more capable, computing equipment soon turns into despair shows how manufacturers, in the forefront Microsoft, have devised ways of fleecing us for our money without providing any meaningful benefits. Their products are not produced in response to customer demands but in order to give the company greater control over both the market segment and the individual user, creating dependencies. The technological capabilities already exist for us to simply walk around with a pocket USB drive containing all our favourite programs, settings and data to plug into a processor anywhere, be it the home, the office, or an internet café, and start doing our work. This kind of freedom is anathema to the industry which is inventing all kinds of measures to prevent us from slipping out of their grips. Online activation is such an example. The obvious problem with online activation is that if the company selling the software goes bust, the expensive program you bought becomes effectively worthless. But even for a strong market player, like Microsoft, it can render your purchase almost obsolete. There are solutions on offer where software programs and files are hosted online for users to work with, however, since business people travel and do not always have adequate online access, these solutions are not a fix for everybody.

If you go out and buy a new computer in the high street or online it will now come with Windows Vista pre-installed as an operating system. Recently, the European Court ruled against Microsoft for anti-competitive practices by bundling its own software with its operating system and preventing interoperability with other software. The ruling hardly goes far enough. A much bigger anti-competitive measure is that the software comes pre-installed in the first place. Customers should have a choice of operating systems when buying a new computer. Vista retails at almost £200, yet it is bundled with new computers for a fraction of that price. So if a customer buys a computer without an operating system (if he can find one!) and buys the operating system separately, he is greatly disadvantaged.

I’ve been operating a multitude of specialist business software on a machine running under MS Windows XP Professional for years, some of it legacy software for which a new software key can no longer be obtained. When looking for a new laptop I was unable to find a newer model with Windows XP pre-installed. I, therefore, bought a Vista model and set about the task of rolling back the operating system. Idealistically I assumed this task would take about half a day, so I set a whole weekend aside, just in case. In the end, it took the best part of a week. Here is why.

The quickest method of migration is to image an existing hard drive and restore it to the new machine. In the past I used Powerquest Drive Image for this purpose. Unfortunately, it does not run under Windows Vista and no updated drivers are available. Hence, I was forced to buy new imaging software, choosing Acronis True Image. After restoring the image to the new system XP failed to run. An attempted Windows repair installation from the original operating system CD indicated the problem: Windows Setup determined that there was no hard drive on the new computer. There was, of course, a hard drive, larger in size than the previous one, but the Intel chip on the laptop was set to only work with Windows Vista. To work with any other operating system special drivers would have to be installed first. In my opinion, this immediately violates the anti-competition laws under which Microsoft was recently fined for lesser non-compliance.

The installation of a hard disk controller driver in itself wouldn’t be such a problem, once obtained from the computer manufacturer’s website, if Microsoft had not been stuck in the stone age with its flag ship Vista product demanding that the driver be loaded from a floppy disk. In the days of USB sticks, new computers no longer feature pre-historic bulky and useless floppy drives. Hence a visit to a local retailer was required to purchase a USB floppy drive in order to load the required drivers. Either Microsoft developers have been very sloppy in this respect when rolling out a new operating system every couple of years, or this relic from the past was left purposefully because the ability to load the drivers from a USB stick might also make it more likely for the operating system to be booted from a USB drive. If Windows could be booted from a USB storage location, then we could upgrade computer hardware without ever having to migrate the operating system and the software running under it and consequently never would have to buy another Mircosoft operating system unless we really fell in love with it.

Endless hours and computer restarts later (which reminds me of somebody’s email signature: “Linux – life is too short for reboots”) I was finally able to boot into Windows XP on the imaged drive. At this point Windows asked for “reactivation” since the hardware had significantly changed from the last login. When Microsoft launched XP it first introduced the “Windows Product Activation” where the operating system would lock you out unless you had activated it within 30 days. Once activated this program would keep a snapshot of your hardware settings and would ask for reactivation if anything but minor changes had taken place. Activation can be done either online or over the telephone where users are given a new lengthy code to enter into their machines in order for them to function. For reactivation the time scale is extremely short, a mere 3 days in total.

I initially ignored the prompt and set about installing the necessary sound, display, modem, LAN drivers etc., since they differed from those of the previous computer. Since expensive laptops are no longer shipped with driver disks, the drivers only being available as part of the “mandatory” Vista installation bundled with the system, those drivers have to be downloaded painstakingly from the computer manufacturer’s website.

The migration process had by now eaten most of the weekend, but there remind the nagging threat of Windows product activation. The Windows XP CD from which this operating system was installed was a genuine one, so reactivation after moving it to a new machine should not pose a problem, however, as the support technician at Microsoft whom I spoke to on the phone declared: “We do not support image installations”. He further explained that the preferred method of installing Windows was to reformat one’s hard drive and start from scratch, as if people only wanted to run Microsoft operating systems for the sheer joy of the Windows welcome tune without the need for any other software and data on their hard drives to be retained.

The problem with the Windows activation was that the Activation Window which popped up on screen was blank, looking like this:

Without any information being displayed, neither internet nor telephone activation would work.

To their credit, Microsoft tried every possible avenue in their arsenal of tricks when I spoke to them for hours to resolve the issue. These calls would have cost me a fortune on the high rate number provided to the public for Microsoft technical support, however, there is a handy website providing alternative numbers, even freephone numbers, for high rate 0807 numbers, helping Joe Public to escape from yet another favourite company money spinning trap.

After accepting that I did not want to wipe my hard drive, Microsoft came up with a number of other possible solutions, the most ingenious one being to do a repair installation of Windows XP after first completely removing Mozilla Firefox from the computer! Mozilla Firefox is a free alternative browser to Internet Explorer, and I wondered whether this was yet another anti-competitive trick Microsoft had up their sleeves. I opted for changing the Windows registry instead so it would not default to Mozilla when trying to display the activation window. As a precaution I also uninstalled Windows Internet Explorer 7, which has been known to cause some display problems in the past, although I was not advised to do so by Microsoft!

After sitting through another boring Windows Setup session with its boastful messages how this Windows was the best ever and allowed you to do anything you could ever wish to do, the result was as disappointing as before. Windows could not be activated. A very helpful Microsoft engineer talked me through some tweaks which were entered in the command prompt in safe mode. He tried his very best, especially since I had intimated I was going to write about my experiences, but it is now official: Microsoft are unable to fix this bug in their activation process.

There are a number of suggestions on this issue on the internet. If anybody encounters as similar problem my advice is not to waste time with them. I should know, because I tried them all. Copying over the wpa.dbl file from a sound installation does not work. Resetting the computer’s system clock to an earlier date does not give you extra days for activation but locks you out straight away even before the 3 days are up! Microsoft have made their activation process quite fool-proof; so fool-proof that even they can’t fix it when it goes wrong!

My only remaining option was now to install a clean copy of Microsoft XP (each time loading the drivers from the floppy drive, of course!), activate it as a new installation and then move my existing programs and files across using Laplink’s PC Mover. This is an ingenious program which moves most applications including their registry entries and only very few of them will require reinstallation or re-licensing. The process takes many hours, but it is second best only to cloning a hard drive. The fact that this is possible renders the Microsoft claim baseless that they do not support image installations to prevent people from running the same operating system on more than one machine. With PC Mover I can do exactly that, because I do not have to de-activate my old Windows copy before activating the new one. The downside to imaging or cloning a hard drive is that a lot of tweaking is required after the move, and of course, it’s yet another product to pay for.

I now have a functional XP Professional installation on my new computer with all my legacy applications working well, many of which would have failed under Vista. Because many of my clients require me to work in applications which run under Windows, I did not consider switching to Linux in the past or swapping the expensive Microsoft Office installation for the free Open Office, which can effectively do all the same things. However, knowing that XP will no longer be supported, and being pretty sure that Vista is going to be even more patronising and devious than XP ever was, I am now seriously looking into installing Linux and running Microsoft programs in a Windows shell or emulator, available from Win4Lin, for example. Microsoft have gone to extreme lengths to trap computer users into running and constantly updating their products without tangible benefit. For me, this latest waste of money and time associated with migrating my computer has gone one step too far. I am planning to set some time aside to experiment with the alternatives, and if I can get it to work, will turn my back on Microsoft forever. Meanwhile, computers continue to come with their software pre-installed, so I better hold on to my USB floppy drive!

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At 1 October 2007 at 10:34, Blogger Unknown said...

Assalaamu 'alaikum,

Give pc-bsd a try at it performs a bit better than Linux on the desktop. Also includes Openoffice and other essential open source software.



At 22 October 2007 at 02:14, Blogger Datenscheich said...

Was eine digitale Odysee!

Bei mir stand es vor 2 Monaten auch an:
Also habe ich mir eine Kleinwerkstatt gesucht, gemeinsam haben wir eine für mich optimale Hardware-Konstellation erarbeitet, und dann habe ich noch 80 € für ein OEM XP-Betriebssystem draufgelegt. Und meine alte Festplatte wurde gleich mit eingebaut, so daß ich einfach alles von der ehemaligen und stillgelegten C-Partition auf die neue der 200 GB Festplatte rüberziehen konnte.

Gesamtkosten: 500 €

Dies war das erste mal, daß ein Wechsel fast schon Spaß gemacht hat! Ich hatte davor Win 98 auf einem uralten Siemens-Nixdorf PC.


At 6 March 2009 at 04:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across the same problem when I cloned my Gateway hard drive to run in a Dell. As soon as XP started the system locked up requesting software activation. In talking to Microsoft personnel about the problem I was informed it would be legal to install the Gateway OS in the Dell PC. My fix was a clean install. I am now wondering if you can run a copy of xp in VMware workstation and move the xp image and run it in a new computer in VMware workstation would it lockup?



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