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The rumor mill

Windows XP has already generated some urban legends. Windows Advisor hed: The rumor mill dek: Windows XP has already generated some urban legends. dek: you can run DOS programs on XP, but you can’t boot to it. by Joe DeRouen

A rumor without a leg to stand on will get around some other way.

-John Tudor

Microsoft Windows XP has attracted rumors like no other operating system in the history of the personal computer. For this edition of Windows Advisor, I sent out e-mails to several different mailing lists, asking for rumors about Windows XP that the other members of the lists might have stumbled across.

The response was overwhelming and included everything from the outlandish to the downright scary. The most relevant rumors are printed here, along with my attempt at debunking (or verifying) them. And always remember: The truth is out there, don’t believe everything you read, and, please, don’t take any wooden nickels.

One installation, one product key

“I’ve heard rumors that a given product key for a Windows XP installation will only work once,” worried Jennifer Timmons, a sales coordinator in San Francisco. “Is this true?”

Fortunately, while there is a grain of truth to this rumor, it isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. An important new feature of Windows XP is called Windows Product Activation (WPA). And, yes, WPA does ostensibly prevent users from installing Windows XP on multiple PCs and can even prevent multiple installations on the same computer.

Once you install Windows XP, the WPA system keeps track of how many times you’ve launched the software and how much time has passed since the initial installation. Before the end of an amount of time specified by Microsoft, you must register the software, or it simply stops working. After 30 days without registration, Windows XP will lock the user out from many key features of the OS. WPA isn’t limited to Windows XP and is (or will be) a feature on most new Microsoft products, with the allowed number of launches and time varying by product. With Office XP, for example, you’re granted 50 launches of the suite before being forced to register the software.

Moreover, if your system changes drastically (say, you install a new motherboard) Windows might well inform you that you have to call Microsoft to get permission to continue running Windows XP. When you first install the OS, a “hardware ID” (HWID) will be created from the parts that make up your computer. When Windows XP is activated on your computer, the system will verify your HWID every 10 days and at every reboot by generating a current HWID and comparing it to the original one stored on your PC.

If Windows XP determines that your PC has changed too much, the OS will stop working, thus forcing you to phone Microsoft, explain the new hardware, and obtain a new code. The theory is that WPA will keep users from installing any individual copy of Windows XP on more than one system at a time, which is probably where the product key rumor comes from.

Windows XP won’t run my old dos programs!

“Will Windows XP continue to run my old DOS programs?” asked Shawn Robbins, a realtor in Dallas. “I’ve heard that it doesn’t. I’ve had one PC or another since the ’80s, and have a huge collection of DOS games. I don’t want to give them up just to run the latest OS!”

Unlike some older versions of Windows, Windows XP doesn’t contain an actual copy of the MS-DOS operating system in its underlying architecture. In other words, it isn’t just a graphical shell plastered on top of DOS.

While this is good news for the stability of the system, it may very well be bad news for people still running DOS programs. Thankfully, however, Windows XP does emulate DOS and can run many DOS programs within a Window.

As a rule of thumb, if your DOS programs ran in Windows 2000 inside a desktop window, they will probably run in Windows XP with a bit of tinkering. However, if you are used to booting directly into DOS mode with nothing but a command prompt visible, and then launching your DOS programs with full access to every feature of DOS, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Booting directly to DOS is no longer possible with Windows XP.

Windows XP, super spy

“I’m leery of buying Windows XP,” confided Al Bunker, a contractor in Detroit, “because I’ve heard that Microsoft can spy on you through the software. Is that true?”

Windows XP automatically updates itself via an open Internet connection. This feature, while to many users a positive one, has sparked a lot of paranoia on the Web. First and foremost, no, Microsoft can’t and won’t use the feature to spy on you. But if you don’t like this new feature, you can simply turn it off. Here’s how:

Click Start, click Control Panel, and then double-click System. Click the Automatic Updates tab, and then click the option reading, “Turn off automatic updating. I want to update my computer manually.”

And that’s it. From that point forward (unless you change it) Windows XP won’t come alive in the middle of the night and go hunting for updates. You might want to reconsider eliminating the automatic updates feature, though. It’s a great way to keep your Windows XP operating system up to date and running smoothly.

Eliminating the competition

“I’ve heard that Microsoft doesn’t allow certain competing software packages to run under the new OS,” wrote Joe Reynolds, a construction worker in Pittsburg, Texas. “I don’t want to be tied into running only the software that Microsoft wants me to run.”

Officially, Microsoft doesn’t prevent any rival company’s software from running on any of their platforms, but they have been known to create a roadblock or two for their competitors in the past in terms of tying their own programs (such as Internet Explorer) into their OS.

This particular rumor probably originated from a squabble Microsoft had with AOL and Real Networks in the middle of last year, when Microsoft proposed that AOL not support Real Network’s RealPlayer but instead solely support Microsoft’s Media Player when AOL was installed on a Windows XP system. “Any third-party code or functionality shall not be in a form accessible or utilizable by other applications or content,” stated a June 14 Microsoft draft related to the proposal.

After a conference call with Microsoft engineers in June, an AOL software engineer allegedly sent an e-mail to an AOL negotiator stating that Microsoft’s proposal was meant “to prevent the user from using the standalone RealPlayer when the player is installed by AOL.”

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer denied the rumor, saying that it was in his company’s best interest to ensure that all third-party software worked with Windows XP. “Will Real (Networks) be able to install on Windows? Of course they can,” he said. Ballmer also denied that Microsoft had tried to seal a deal with AOL that would have removed most mentions of the RealNetworks name from AOL’s service, dismissing it as “a lot of random rumors.”

And that’s probably where this particular Windows XP rumor came from. The bottom line is that, yes, Microsoft would absolutely love for you to install nothing but Microsoft products on your PC, but won’t (OK, legally can’t) force that decision upon you.

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