The Dark Side of Windows XP

Despite all of the improvements, Windows XP doesn’t come without its share of controversy. Let us count the ways in which the new operating system has raised eyebrows and hackles.

Security Holes

Since the first edition of this book—in fact, since Windows XP itself first appeared—the landscape of Windows computing has taken a disconcerting jolt toward the nasty. Almost everyone connected to the Internet has encountered one or more of these upsetting no-fun creations:

  • Viruses. Online lowlifes write hundreds of new viruses and Trojan horses each year, each designed to gum up the works in Windows for as many people as possible. Viruses are getting more damaging, more frequent, and more expensive to clean out once your PC is infected.

  • Spyware. This relatively new category of evilware gets downloaded to your hard drive secretly, piggybacking on some more legitimate download. You might think you’re downloading a perfectly safe game, but it actually contains a secret program that runs without your knowledge. It may monitor what you type, it may serve as a remote-control tool for hackers, or it may actually send files and information from your PC back to whoever created the spyware.

  • Hacker attacks. Hackers aren’t especially interested in your grocery lists and letters to Congress. Instead, they prefer to use automated sniffing software that looks for unprotected PCs. If they get into yours, they can turn your PC into a relay station that makes it harder for authorities to trace their hacking exploits.

Fortunately, Microsoft has taken a strong step toward shielding you from this kind of unpleasantness by creating Service Pack 2. As you’ll find out in Chapter 10, Service Pack 2 makes it much harder for the scum of the Net to unleash viruses, spyware, and hacking attacks on you.

Service Pack 2 is far from perfect, however. In the end, the responsibility for protecting your PC falls on you—and Chapter 10 gives you the information you need to do it.

Activation (Copy Protection)

Windows XP marks the first time Microsoft has ever copy-protected Windows, meaning you can’t install Windows XP on more than one PC from the same CD. (Technically, the CDs are all identical. What you really can’t use more than once is your serial number.) If you have a desktop PC as well as a laptop, you have to buy Windows XP twice, and Microsoft will give you only a 10 percent discount on the second copy. If you make the attempt, the second PC refuses to operate after 30 days.

How does it know that you’re being naughty? When you first install Windows XP, the operating system inspects ten crucial components inside your PC: the hard drive, motherboard, video card, memory, and so on. All this information is transmitted, along with the 25-character serial number on the back of your Windows XP CD (the Product Key), to Microsoft’s database via your Internet account. The process takes about two seconds, and involves little more than clicking an OK button. You have just activated Windows XP.


If you don’t have an Internet connection, activation is a much more grueling procedure. You have to call a toll-free number, read a 50-digit identification number to the Microsoft agent, and then type a 42-digit confirmation number into your software. Do whatever it takes to avoid having to endure this fingertip-numbing ritual.

Later, if you try to install the same copy of Windows XP onto a different computer, Windows XP will check in with Microsoft and discover that the new machine’s components aren’t the same. It will conclude that you have tried to install the same copy of the operating system onto a different machine—and it will lock you out.

This aspect of Windows XP has frightened or enraged many a computer fan. In truth, though, it isn’t quite as bad as it seems. Here’s why:

  • If you buy a new PC with Windows XP already installed, you don’t have to activate anything; it’s already been done.

  • Copies of Windows XP that are distributed within corporations don’t require this activation business, either.

  • No information about you is transferred to Microsoft during this activation process—only a list of the components in your PC make the trip. (Later in the installation process, you’re also asked to register your copy of Windows—a completely different affair. This time, personal information is transmitted to Microsoft—but this part is optional.)

  • Don’t believe the Internet Chicken Littles who claim that activation will shut down your PC if you try to upgrade the memory or another component. In fact, you would have to replace four of the ten key components within a period of four months—your basic hardware-upgrade frenzy—before Windows XP stopped recognizing your computer. And even then, you could just call Microsoft to obtain a new activation number.


Your PC’s note to itself that Windows has been properly activated is stored in two little files called Wpa.dbl and Wpa.bak. (They’re in your My ComputerLocal Disk (C:)WindowsSystem32 folder.) If you ever decide to replace your hard drive, back up these little files before you remove your original drive. (Copy them onto a floppy, for example.)

Then, after installing the new hard drive and installing Windows XP onto it, copy the Wpa.dbl and Wpa.bak files into exactly the same folder. Windows XP will be perfectly content that it’s running on a legitimate, properly activated computer.

Privacy Concerns

Microsoft is making more of an effort than ever to compile a massive database of its customers. There’s nothing particularly sneaky about it, though, because Microsoft collects this information only with your permission.

Here are three times when you’ll be asked to send information back to Microsoft:

  • During registration. As noted earlier, registration means “sending your name and address to Microsoft just after starting up Windows XP for the first time.” Registering ensures that you’ll be on Microsoft’s mailing lists, so you won’t miss a single exciting Microsoft marketing message. Fortunately, it’s optional.

  • After a crash or freeze. When things go really wrong with your software, Windows XP, like Office XP before it, seeks your permission to send a bug report back to the mother ship. No information about you is supposed to go along for the ride—only a description of your PC and some technical specs that describe what was going on at the time of the crash. However, it’s technically possible for some scraps of your document to show up in the report.

    Microsoft collects these bug reports by the thousands. Its hope, of course, is that it will be able to spot patterns that help pinpoint the causes of these crashes.

  • When you try to use one of the Internet features. Some of Windows XP’s most attractive features, including MSN Messenger and Web page publishing, require you to have a Passport—Microsoft’s form of Internet identification. All you have to reveal in this case is your email address. You can refuse, of course, but then Microsoft won’t let you use those features.

Microsoft swears up and down that it has no ulterior motives in compiling this data. But if it makes you nervous, just decline in each case.

Microsoft Data Formats

Microsoft makes no secret of the fact that it wants its own software technologies to predominate, especially when it comes to the Internet and multimedia. For example, Windows Media Player can’t understand QuickTime movie files or RealAudio files.

The situation has improved slightly over time. For example, the original Windows XP didn’t include the Java software required by many Web sites (because Java isn’t a Microsoft technology), and Windows Media Player couldn’t even create MP3 files. Fortunately, public pressure convinced Microsoft to restore Java in Service Pack 1 (Section 5.10.4) and MP3-file creation in Media Player 10 (Chapter 7).

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