I tried to activate Windows XP Home and it didn't work. Thus began a phone saga with Microsoft support, ending in failure. Until I fixed it myself.
I’m trying to activate Windows XP Home. I’ve just performed a clean setup, and Windows now won’t let me even log in until I activate. The network card has apparently not yet been configured, so I can’t activate over the ‘net. When I do the phone activation, the “installation ID” I’m supposed to give the Microsoft representative is blank. What do I do?
That question wasn’t posed by just any reader. This time it was me.
And after an hour and a half on the phone, I was no further along.
And yet, left to my own devices I had the machine activated in about 10 minutes.
This is not good. Not at all. In fact, it’s downright depressing.
First, the background.
I have a Dell Latitude 131L that’s perhaps two years old. It came with Windows XP Home pre-loaded from Dell. I’d loaned the machine to a friend for a while who’d recently returned it. I used it as a testbed and installed Ubuntu Linux on it, played with it for a bit, and then left it to sit in a corner.
Today I decided that this was the machine to use for a new employee at my wife’s business. So, time to reformat and reinstall.
Now, here is the only confusing factor: the machine is a Dell, and came with Dells OEM version of Windows XP Home pre-installed. The product key for XP Home that was installed on it is on a sticker on the bottom of the laptop. Like so many of my readers, I’d lost, misplaced, or just didn’t feel like looking for the actual Dell Windows XP Home disk, particularly since I had a old pre-SP1 retail disk (purchased from the Microsoft Company Store) in front of me that I’d never used. The product key for one CD of Windows XP Home should work with any other – remember, it’s the product key you’re purchasing, not just a CD. If not, I expected it would at least generate an error when I entered it. So when I installed Windows I entered the original Dell product key, even though I was installing a retail copy of XP Home.
The thing is, it worked. Or at least it seemed to. Windows Setup dutifully accepted the product key, reformatted the entire hard drive as I requested and copied over files from the CD. It just generally seemed to be working, and working well.
Until it rebooted and hung. (Still no idea what that was about.)
I removed the CD, and hard-booted the machine, and sure enough, Windows came up except that it presented me with a message I’d never seen before, and didn’t even know existed: “You must first activate this copy of Windows before you can log in”. This was new. In my experience Windows will normally allow you to log in and complete your set-up without activating, giving you 30 days to get around to that.
OK, whatever, I decided to activate. The choices came up, I plugged in a network cable and told Windows to activate itself over the net. No. The network card hadn’t been configured yet, there was no external connectivity available. The only option was to activate Windows over the phone.
I hesitated, but having advised so many people in the past that phone activation is no big deal, I decided to live by my own words, and picked up the phone.
I’m sure that most of the time it works. But … Oh. My. God. Here’s the highly edited sequence:
- I call the activation number, which is of course automated. It asked me to type in the “installation ID” that should be displayed on my screen at this point. The problem was that it wasn’t there:
I’ve called out where the installation ID should be, and as you can see it’s
The automated phone system had no clue how to handle that.
- I was given the option to ask for “help”, where I was routed to a real person. A real person who also had no idea what to do, and directed me to Microsoft technical support.
- I called tech support, and was treated to a long list of “pay per incident” support options, until at the last minute I could dial “0” to speak to a technical support representative.
- The initial support rep, who acts as a kind of gate keeper and call router, took a bunch of my information, listened to my problem and put me on hold. After 10-15 minutes he came back and indicated that I needed to speak to a technical support agent. He gave me a “Service Request” (SR) number, and then transferred me.
- The next technical support person had me try stuff. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say “the usual stuff”, most of which I’d already tried; rebooting, re-entering the product key and so on. The fact that at this point there were few options didn’t stop us from trying.
- And, of course, the questions: where’d I buy this copy, what kind of computer, and more.
- Nothing we did changed anything. No “installation ID”.
- One of the interesting steps he had me try was to reboot in safe mode. It turns out that in safe mode you don’t have to activate first – you can get right into Windows. (Complete with the “you have 30 days to activate” pop up). He had me install some random .inf file (oobe.inf – apparently the “Out Of Box Experience” application) which installed a few more things from CD. After a reboot nothing had changed.
At this point I’m about 45 minutes into it and probably would have given up had I not begun envisioning this article resulting from my experience. Any normal person would have throw up their hands at this point, I’m certain.
- I was put on hold several times while the tech researched the issue.
- I had been fairly clear about what I was doing, but at one point I was very explicit that I was using the Dell OEM Windows XP Home product key to install the Retail Windows XP Home CD. (In honesty, I was kind of expecting that to be the issue.) The tech grabbed on to that and said, of course, that wouldn’t work. So we tried the product key that was included on the Windows XP Home retail disk. No luck. Same error.
- The tech finally decided that getting me a new product key was the thing to do. But that meant transferring me, again, to a different department.
- He stayed on the line while that happened, and I got a new key. No joy. Same error.
- That’s when the tech pretty much gave up, saying that he’d tried all the options. There must be something wrong with my CD, and I should probably take it back to where I’d purchased it, and replace it.
- That’s where I pretty much gave up as well, having spent some 90 minutes with Microsoft attempting to tackle this problem. We closed the issue as “unresolved”.
To their credit everyone I talked to was polite and honestly intent on getting whatever issue was in front of them resolved. (I, too, took pains to remain calm and friendly throughout. Tempting as it is, anger rarely helps.)
And I also have to point out that I totally get that remote debugging is incredibly difficult. I know, I try to do it every day answering questions here. It’s hard. But that’s exactly what we expect technical support specialists to be good at.
The problem was that ultimately, they had no clue. They were just fishing for answers. And as a result they wasted an hour and a half (and more) of my life in the process.
Very disappointing. And frustrating. I can understand that a less patient person would have had a difficult time staying civil – what I was looking for was very simple: I wanted to install and run Microsoft Windows, all legal and above board.
And I simply couldn’t.
Left to my own devices, I fixed it in about 10 minutes.
And that, to me, is the truly shameful part.
The key was my statement early on: “The network card hadn’t been configured yet, there was no external connectivity available.” That’s a statement I made repeatedly to the folks at Microsoft.
The other key was noticing that I could get into the computer by using Safe Mode.
My approach was very simple: get the network working, and then see if I could activate that way.
I downloaded network drivers for this model of laptop from Dell, and using a DVD-RW, copied them on to the laptop, which I had rebooted into Safe Mode. The setup programs for the drivers didn’t work – apparently the Windows Installer is disabled in Safe Mode. However the driver files were available.
I went to the network device in Device Manager (it had the familiar yellow question mark that indicated there was a problem), clicked “update driver”, pointed it to the folder containing the drivers for Windows XP for this laptop’s network card, and installed.
Then I rebooted.
I didn’t reboot into Safe Mode, just plain old default regular Windows.
And directly into Windows I went. No “you must first activate before you can login”, just directly into Windows. And yes, once there I saw the expected “you have 30 days to activate” pop up.
And the network worked.
As did activation.
The machine’s next to me as I type this, happily installing SP2, as it should.
Aside from formatting that DVD-RW, it took 10 minutes, tops.
Here’s my theory:
A machine without connectivity of any sort is a problem. If Windows Setup can’t determine that there’s a way to connect to the internet ever (i.e. there’s no network adapter of any kind – even though I had networking hardware, Windows didn’t see it, as evidenced by the lack of drivers having been installed on setup), it seems like it drops back to this ultra “secure” mode where you must activate before you can even use your machine.
I also theorize that since the “installation ID” is actually comprised of information about the system, like its network adapter’s MAC or other serial number, the lack of that network adapter caused it problems too. It was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to calculate the installation ID that was necessary for me to activate by phone.
A classic catch-22: I needed to activate by phone because I didn’t have a network card to activate over the net, and I couldn’t activate by phone because I didn’t have a network card to generate the required ID.
I could, of course, be wrong, but that’s what it “feels” like.
- Since this is an older CD of Windows XP Home, I’m hoping that if it is a bug in Windows Setup and installation, that it’s been fixed in more recent releases.
- Regardless, Microsoft support should have known about this behavior, and there should have been a better solution offered other than “get a new CD”. (Which, in hindsight, would not have solved the problem.)
Even though I worked there for so many years, and in part because I worked there for so many years, I take great care not to come across as some kind of Microsoft fanboy. While the preceding certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for that, I know some think I cut Microsoft more slack than they deserve.
I can’t say what they “deserve”, but I can say that my experience was very disappointing, and that I have a lot more sympathy for folks who have had to go through similar scenarios, without the fall back of being able to just get things to work themselves.
If it weren’t for the job requirements, this laptop might just have ended up running Linux.