28 June 2008

XP SP3 "Stuck" Activation Dialog

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You may see this failure pattern:

  • Windows XP (SP3) demands activation
  • You get the first dialog of the activation wizard
  • But no matter which option you choose, Next doesn't

Specifically; this is the first dialog page of the activation wizard, from which you choose "activate via Internet", "activate via telephone" or "no, I'll do it later".  When you press the Next button, the button appears to depress fine, but when you let it go, the dialog stays where it is. 

If you were trying to activate by phone, then that means you don't see the list of locations to call, or the key to read to the call center if you do call.  So when you call the activation center, the first thing they ask you to do ("please read me your installation ID"), you can't do, and frustration follows.

Context details

I've seen this once, in the following context.  A PC had suffered hard drive failure, and was also in need of RAM upgrade and software updates.  So I first repaired the hardware by imaging to a good hard drive, added more RAM, replaced the duff CD-ROM drive with a working one. 

Then I did "the prelim"; MemTest86 to verify RAM, Bart CDR boot to verify HD via HD Tune, file system checks OK, formal malware scans OK.

Next, I boot into Windows, and am not too surprised when it tells me I need to activate, as the hardware has "changed too much".  I deferred this, and did what I usually do when updating XP systems this month:

  • get off all networks and Internet
  • uninstall free AVG 7.5
  • uninstall Internet Explorer 7
  • move all $.. folders from OS subtree to another HD volume
  • defrag to consolidate free space
  • apply XP SP3 from offline installer
  • verify firewall is on
  • install free AVG 8
  • connect to Internet so AVG 8 can update
  • upgrade other software; Java, Acrobat Reader, Firefox etc.
  • allow Automatic Update to pick up IE7 and other updates
  • attempt activation before applying OS and IE7 updates

During this process, I restarted Windows several times for various reasons, but the activation dialog would not work.  It only worked after I applied the pending Automatic Updates; then after the restart that followed, activation was fine.

Suspected cause

I suspect that pending updates cause the activation dialog to "stick".  This may apply specifically to XP SP3 or be a general XP issue that I had not encountered until now, as I seldom (if ever) have activation demands and pending updates at the same time. 

That situation can arise in the context of installing XP SP3, because:

  • you want to uninstall IE7 (or IE8 beta) before applying SP3
  • Windows Media Player falls back to old version
  • you can't install Media Player 11 as it won't "validate"
  • you can't install IE7 from pre-downloaded file
  • you can't use the Update web site until you activate

So you rely on Automatic Update to feed in the patches you want, but may feel the need to defer installation of these until you've activated.  This applied in my case, because a lot of the updates were for IE6 which I intended to replace with IE7 anyway - so before applying updates, I wanted to install Media Player 11 and IE7, so that the updates I downloaded and applied would be "after" these.

If my hunch about the cause of this failure pattern is correct, then this combination of circumstances can create a "deadly embrace" of cross-dependencies; can't activate until updates are applied, but user doesn't want to apply updates until the system is activated.

Can't install IE7 on XP SP3?

On "you can't install IE7 from pre-downloaded file"; this seems to be a different XP SP3 issue. 

Usually, I can at least initiate the IE7 install from a pre-downloaded installation executable, though this needs to be online so it can pull down updates to IE7 as part of the installation process.  But this fails after XP SP3 has been applied; instead, one has to induce an IE7 install via Automatic, Windows or Microsoft Update.  Sometimes it's offered as a critical update, other times not?