Black background, persistent notices await those who don’t activate Windows 7

Microsoft Corp. will turn Windows 7’s background picture black and put up persistent notices on the screen if users don’t activate the new operating system, a company manager said yesterday.

The Windows 7 beta, the public preview Microsoft launched Jan. 10 but has since stopped offering, exhibits much of the same behavior as Windows Vista if it is not activated within 30 days, said Alex Kochis, senior product manager for Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) program.

“If you do not activate the software within the grace period, you will receive persistent notifications, including a message from the system tray every 60 minutes that reminds you to ‘Activate Windows Now,’ ” said Kochis in a long entry to the WGA blog.

Also on-screen, he said, is a permanent notice that the copy of Windows is “non-genuine,” Microsoft’s term for pirated or not-yet-activated versions of the operating system; a similar message appears whenever the user launches the Control Panel, which houses Windows’ settings and options.

“While you can change the plain black background to any background you choose, if changed, the background will reset to a plain black background every 60 minutes,” noted Kochis.

“Also, you will not be able to receive optional updates from Windows Update unless the copy of Windows is properly activated.”

Several of those on-screen elements — notably the black desktop and the always-on-screen “non-genuine” warnings — are shared with Windows Vista, which was revamped with Service Pack 1 to soften the impact of not activating the operating system.

Before SP1, Vista used a so-called kill switch that dropped the operating system into what Microsoft called “reduced-functionality mode” or nongenuine mode.

These states came into play when users didn’t activate their copy within 30 days, activated it with an invalid product key or failed the persistent anti-counterfeit validation tests that Vista did on itself from time to time.

In reduced functionality mode, nothing worked except the Internet Explorer browser and that too for only an hour at a time – before the operating system automatically logged off the user.

Nongenuine – which Microsoft also ditched – was more forgiving, but even then certain Vista features were disabled, including the Aero user interface, the ReadyBoost disk-caching tool and some parts of the Windows Defender anti-malware protection. Nag notices to get legit were also slapped on the screen.

With Vista SP1 – made available early last year – Microsoft changed its approach. Rather than dial down the operating system’s feature list, Microsoft added to the nagging.

• During log-in, users have to wait 15 seconds before clicking the “Activate Later” button in the two-option dialog to proceed to the normal Vista desktop.

• A new black background prominently marks a machine as running pirated — or at best, questionable — Vista.

• A “nongenuine” label appears in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

• Every hour, an “Activate Now” alert pops up.

As before, users if users didn’t activate Vista with a legitimate product key within 30 days, the black screen and nagging reminders would begin appearing on Day 31.

Actually, the nagging starts way before then. Notices to activate appear daily starting on Day 3 of the 30-day grace period, and they continue through Day 27. During Days 28 and 29, however, the notices show up every four hours. On Day 30, they pop up hourly.

The changes are also seen if Vista won’t revalidate online, which is required to download some software from Microsoft’s site.

Vista also periodically revalidates, or tries to, even without any download attempts; that’s part of Microsoft’s scheme to limit the damage done by the theft or leak of volume license keys.

If Vista fails validation online, which is much more deterministic and may be because the product key has been blocked, the black screen and notices can start right away.

Other bits, however, appear to be new to Windows 7, including the notice that pops up when the Control Panel is launched and the blocking of some updates.

Kochis also spelled out the warnings that Windows 7 puts in front of users as the 30-day grace period slowly shrinks.

If the user doesn’t activate within the first three days of use, for example, a message reading “Activate Windows Now” and the number of days remaining appears in on the Windows 7 taskbar.

A pop-up asking the user to activate appears daily through the 27th day, said Kochis, at which point it switches to an every-four-hours schedule until the final, 30th day, when it changes to an hourly timetable.

Although Kochis did not mention it, others have noted that like Vista, Windows 7 can be run for up to 120 days, not just 30, without activating the operating system, by using the same “slmgr -rearm” command that gained notoriety after Vista’s debut.

Several blogs have posted instructions on how to use this legal method to extend the life span of Windows 7, including My Digital Life.

Kochis noted, however, that nothing is set in stone. “The beta isn’t necessarily the final experience that will appear in the released product and that based on feedback some of the specific elements of the product activation experience could change,” he said.

If users don’t activate Windows 7 beta, it blocks some Windows Update fixes or patches.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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