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Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Monday, June 4, 2012

How to Change the Windows XP Distribution Channel type on Installable Media

Recently I ran into a quandary with a customer's computer - and after a couple of weeks of head-banging, I finally figured out a solution to the problem.

A customer gave me a Dell Dimension 2850 computer he wanted resurrected, and after thoroughly sanitizing the machine I discovered that it's Windows XP Home installation had been seriously damaged.

I tried - for two mortal weeks! - to resurrect the installation.  No good.

I tried cloning an installation from a sister machine.  No good.

I tried to create a set of "Dell System Recovery Disks" to reinstall from scratch - No good, as the System Recovery CD's I created Blue-Screened right at the beginning of the install.  (And yes, I tried creating the CD's more than once, with different media, using a different burner. . . .)

Since Dell doesn't support XP, (of any flavor), anymore, it would be impossible, if not hideously expensive, to get a set of real, working, recovery disks for that box.

I tried using my TechNet copy of Windows XP Home to do a repair install - No good, it wanted a product key, and it would not accept the OEM key from the Certificate Of Authenticity stuck to the side of the box.

What I needed was a Windows XP Home install CD - OEM version, and this kind of CD is nowhere to be found - unless you happen to be an OEM installer or just happen to have a copy laying around from an old XP System Builder's package.  Which, by the way, I did not have.

What I DID have was a Windows XP Home install disk - and activation key - downloaded from my trusty TechNet account's download repository.  And that's good.  However, the TechNet version - and key - is a "Retail Box" version with a "retail" key to match it.  Which is bad, at least for this problem.

After two weeks of banging my head against that ever present, and oh so familiar, brick wall - I had come to a standstill.

There were several options readily apparent to me at this point:
  • Punt.
    Just tell the client that he was SOL - Stinkin'-out-of-luck.
    Unfortunately my reputation as a miracle worker and computer wizard was on the line, so that option was not acceptable.
  • Get, and install, a legitimate copy of Windows XP Home.
    I tried.  I really tried, but Windows XP, (of any flavor), is "out of print" no matter where one looks.  That being the case, a legit new install is out of the question.
  • Get a legit version of Windows 7 and install that.
    Since this was a blazingly fast Pentium 4 box with a whopping 512 megs of memory, a Windows 7 install would have been as slow as molasses in February.  It should be "intuitively obvious" that this solution was just a tiny bit less than optimal as well.
  • Find a skumware site on the Web and download a (ahem!) "official" version of the Windows XP Home install CD.
    Because it is a lead-pipe-cinch that a whole plethora of skumware, vileware, root-kits and other such nasties would come pre-installed as well - not to mention a whole host of ethical reasons - this was not a viable option either.
  • Install my TechNet copy and key, and convert the installation so that it would accept the OEM key after the fact.
    There are some really interesting instructions on the Internet that explain precisely how to do this by editing Registry keys, removing/modifying installation files, etc.  When I tried that, I discovered that I had magically turned my "Retail" XP install into a quivering lump that would neither activate, (It even went so far as to refuse to launch the activation utility!), nor allow me to browse the Web.
  • Install my TechNet copy, use my TechNet supplied key, deliver it to the customer like that, and keep my big mouth shut.
    Since I value my TechNet membership, and would like to continue as a member in good standing, this choice was not particularly high on my list of available options.
  • Somehow or other, take what I have and magically transform it into what I need.
    This is also fraught with all kinds of prickly and technical licensing issues, so I really hesitated to try it.  Unfortunately, all else had failed so - rather than give out my TechNet key - I figured this was worth a try.

NOTE:  If you read the fine-print in Microsoft's rather voluminous license, particularly as it applies to OEM installs, the only legitimate OEM reinstall is to:
  • Reinstall to the exact same hardware, (i.e. on the exact same physical box that it was shipped on),
  • Using the exact same OS type and kind,
  • With the exact same programs, features, add-ins, bloatware, "free trial offers", etc., as was originally installed in the "fresh-from-the-factory" condition.  Including all the "Preparing your computer for first use" horse-hooey.
Of course, this assumes you actually have the True And Authorized re-installation media - which is the whole problem!

Having said all that, here's how to change a sow's ear into a cow's ear.

The big difference between the various distribution channel versions of XP lies in one tiny file, setup.inf, which is located in the i386 directory of the disk.  So, if we can somehow change that one little file, we can convert a disk of one channel type into another.  (i.e. "Retail" into "OEM")

You will need:
  • A legitimate copy of the Windows version you want to convert. (i.e. From TechNet, et. al.)  You do NOT want to use disks obtained from dubious sources for more reasons than three.
  • A system with a legitimate COA of the same version as your install media, except that it is likely to be an OEM COA instead of a retail COA.
    Note:  These instructions are not intended to allow you to install whatever you darn well please, wherever you darn well please.  These instructions are to allow you to reinstall the same version of Windows XP on a box that has a blown install, the recovery media being unavailable for one reason or another.
  • Software that will allow you to extract the contents of a CD or ISO, including the boot information.
  • Software that will allow you to re-create a bootable CD/ISO from a bunch of files and the boot files.
  • A text editor.
  • Luck.

Here's how I did it:

The installation media I used for the conversion was a plain-vanilla, English version, Windows XP Home with SP-3 preinstalled, ISO that I had downloaded from TechNet.
  1. Using your CD/ISO expansion software, rip the entire contents of the Win XP (retail) CD to a newly created folder somewhere.
  2. Using the same software, rip the boot files to a folder somewhere else.
  3. Within the rip folder, go to the i386 directory and find the file "setup.inf" and open it with a text editor like Notepad.
  4. Find the part labeled "Pid", followed by an eight digit (?) number.
  5. Replace the last three digits with the letters "OEM" - obviously without the quotation marks, but you already knew that, right? - and save the file.
  6. Using the disk burning tool, recreate the CD by dragging all the ripped files and folders to the root of the new compilation.
  7. Replace the burner software's default media label with the label from the original CD.
    In my case, using ISO Buster to rip the CD, the rip's folder name is the same as the CD's disk label.
    Copy that and replace the default disk label with the one you copied.
  8. Mark the disk as "bootable" and provide the boot image file you copied from the original disk.
  9. Burn and verify.
Voila!  You now have an installable Windows XP OEM edition CD.

One further note:
In order to use this CD, you have to do a "bare metal" install, completely overwriting any previous retail installs you may have tried to do.  Trying to overwrite a retail install with an OEM install by performing a "repair install" won't work.  Ask me.  Go ahead, I dare you.  Ask me how I figured out THAT little gem.

Hopefully this will help drag your butt out of the same bind I was in, but without the weeks of head-banging.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)