The Windows XP product key is the 25-digit alphanumeric string, in the format AB123-123AB-AB123-123AB-AB123, used to license copies of Windows XP. This string is usually found on the licensing sticker, which is either sold with each copy of XP or placed on the case of a computer with XP preinstalled.
At some point it might be necessary to change the CD key for an installed copy of XP. This could be for a variety of reasons—for instance, if you are changing licensing schemes, such as going from buying licenses individually to a bulk-licensed edition of Windows or even vice versa. Some product keys that have been known to be pirated are also being invalidated with the release of each Service Pack. Changing the license key requires that Windows XP be re-activated.
There are several ways to do this. One involves scripting or the use of the MSOOBE command (the Product Activation screen that comes up when you wish to activate Windows) to reset the Product Activation counter.
Microsoft Knowledge Base article 328874 has two WMI scripts, ChangeVLKeySP1.vbs and ChangeVLKey2600.vbs, for automatically changing the product key. The first script is for changing the key on XP machines that have Service Pack 1 installed; the second is for installations of XP using the gold release candidate edition (i.e., pre-SP1). The two require slightly different methodologies for changing the product key. Both can be used in an automated production environment—for instance, to change a group of machines using a volume-licensed edition of Windows XP. The key can be provided in a command-line script or as part of some other automation procedure.
The same Knowledge Base article also describes how to reset Product Activation manually so that the system will prompt for a new key. Open the Registry and go to the key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESoftwareMicrosoftWindowsNTCurrent VersionWPAEvents. Look for the value OOBETimer, and modify at least one digit in its value. From the Start | Run box, type %systemroot%system32oobemsoobe.exe /a to start the activation procedure. Select the option to telephone a customer service representative to activate Windows (you won't actually do this), click Next, select Change Product Key, and then provide the new product key.
Another way to both change and determine the existing product key is to use a third-party program. The rather interestingly-named Magical Jelly Bean Software has a utility called Keyfinder that can determine the current product key for Windows. The current beta version also supports changing the Office 2003 key and will also support the ability to change another system over the network via the Remote Registry service.
Serdar Yegulalp is the editor of the Windows 2000 Power Users Newsletter. Check out his Windows 2000 blog for his latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators – please share your thoughts as well!
This was first published in June 2004