With the release last week of a near feature-complete Windows XP Beta 2, a number of questions have cropped up, so I thought I'd clear up some of the more common misconceptions about this OS. In the days since the release, Microsoft has run into a bit of controversy surrounding the deployment of Beta 2. Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Universal and Professional subscribers will get Beta 2 on CD-ROM in early May, when the May CD-ROM shipment arrives. TechNet subscribers will also see Beta 2 in that product's May shipment. The delay, in both cases, involves Windows XP's controversial Product Activation feature, as each MSDN and TechNet subscriber will receive a unique Product ID with which to install Beta 2.
Preview Program Confusion
Microsoft announced a Windows XP Preview Program last month, and the day that Beta 2 was released, the company opened up the program to customers. Unfortunately, this program was launched with much confusion and controversy: For $9.95, users can get download access to the Release Candidate 1 (RC1) and RC2 builds of Windows XP Pro, when they are released this summer. An additional $10 gets you RC1 on CD-ROM. But the first 20,000 people that signed up for the program were also promised access to Beta 2 on CD-ROM. But when people began signing up for this program, the order form said that Beta 2 would be provided as a download as well—because of a typo on the Web site. Many people signed up expecting to get download access to Beta 2.
Needless to say, they were disappointed. In the days following the release of Windows XP Beta 2, frustrated Preview Program customers lurked in the program's newsgroup, accusing Microsoft of deception and worse. In the end, Microsoft admitted that it had made an honest mistake and worked to clarify the situation. The first 20,000 sign-ups will get Beta 2 on CD-ROM in the second half of April. And everyone else will get RC1 and RC2, as promised, this summer when Microsoft makes those releases available.
Another source of confusion is Windows XP's system requirements. Microsoft is specifying a Pentium II 233 with 64MB of RAM as the minimum, while recommending a Pentium II 300 with 128MB to get the full Windows XP experience. I think the company's recommended configuration is a more realistic minimum, and I recommend more than 128MB of RAM for acceptable performance. Like any version of Windows NT, Windows XP is RAM hungry and will eat whatever you throw at it. And, like previous releases, the amount of RAM is more important than the processor version: I'd choose a Pentium II 400 with 256MB of RAM over a Pentium 4 with 64MB of RAM any day.
But perhaps the most controversial and misunderstood feature in Windows XP is Product Activation. I should note up front that Product Activation will be included only in the retail versions of Windows XP and those copies that come preinstalled with new PCs: Volume licensees need not deal with this issue. In short, Product Activation ensures that "casual copiers"—who might buy one copy of Windows but install it on two or more PCs—don't pirate Windows XP. It works by requiring you to "activate" your copy of Windows over the Internet or by phone. Product Activation isn't the same thing as registration—which is still optional—although it's similar in that it ties a single copy of Windows to a single entity, in this case, a PC. Here's how Product Activation works: The first time you install Windows XP with your Product ID (CD key), you're prompted to activate it. If you choose not to activate it, Windows XP will stop booting in 14 days, although you will be reminded to activate it before then. However you activate Windows XP, the system generates a unique key based on the Product ID you entered and an unknown algorithm that polls the hardware installed on your system. If you attempt to use that Product ID later to install Windows XP on a different system, activation will fail.
The controversy surrounds this secret algorithm: People are concerned that they will upgrade their hard disk or motherboard and then reinstall Windows XP, which will then not allow activation because the system might be seen as a different PC. But I've tested this scenario, and it's really not that big a deal: If electronic activation fails, you can call Microsoft toll free, explain the upgrade, and have your system re-activated. Once that happens, future electronic activations on that system will work again.
Unless you're pirating Microsoft software, Product Activation probably won't cause you problems—although I think Microsoft could allay most complaints by simply providing two keys per copy of Windows XP, allowing users to install the OS on two systems. And Product Activation is here to stay: Office XP and Visio 2002 will also include this feature, and it's safe to say that future Microsoft products will include it as well.
If you're interested in Windows XP Beta 2, please visit the SuperSite for Windows, which has extensive coverage of this release.
You can find out more about the Windows XP Preview Program on the Microsoft Web site.