Software Activation Still a Bad Idea

Hey, software vendors, would you like to keep your customers happy and encourage new sales?

Hey, software vendors, would you like to keep your customers happy and encourage new sales? Heres how: Dont put activation in your products, and if youve put it in, take it out.

Plenty of vendors responded to my recent column criticizing the implementation of activation technologies for software products. With the goal of reducing piracy and increasing revenue, activation prevents customers from using applications theyve purchased how, when and where they wish.

All the software vendors that responded to the column favored activation. However, 100 percent of the numerous software customers who responded to the column were, not surprisingly, very much against annoying and limiting activation features in products theyve purchased.

Some of the software companies asked what I would do to address their concerns. My answer is the same as before: Dont implement activation. Its a shortsighted stopgap that will end up costing you sales and customers.

Of course software companies should get paid for their products. And piracy should be stopped. But activation has nothing to do with stopping piracy.

In nearly every case where activation has been implemented in software, pirates have quickly released cracked versions. In the case of the Macromedia suite I mentioned in the first column, a cracked version was available the same day the product was released. So activation is useless against true pirates.

What about the goal of stopping the casual, unlicensed use of software? From my own experience and after talking to many IT managers and developers, I have found this kind of usage doesnt prevent sales. For example, take the person who wants to use a product on his or her work system, laptop and home system. The convenience is desirable but may not justify the company paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for it. The likely result is an annoyed customer who wont urge others to use the product.

Even when a person illegally installs or copies software from a friend, its still not in the vendors best interest to try to prevent it through activation. On the contrary, its often in the vendors best interest to let this kind of use go on.

Look at Macromedias Dreamweaver. Im certain that a high percentage of current Dreamweaver users got started with an unlicensed copy from a friend. As these users became experienced and productive, they bought the newer versions of Dreamweaver and most likely became evangelists of the product. Although ostensibly getting ripped off, Macromedia was somehow able to put together enough sales to become the dominant company in most of the fields it competes in, especially Web authoring.

What would have happened with activation in effect? Few of these future Dreamweaver users, many of them students, would have bought their first copy, so the idea that Macromedia was losing sales is incorrect. And a 30-day evaluation copy would not have been sufficient for these users to become proficient and evolve into Dreamweaver aficionados.

So in this case, activation would not have created a sale where it would never have happened. But it would have cost the company future sales. Inconveniencing the loyal users, meanwhile, would simply have made them less inclined to evangelize the product, costing even more sales.

Most users want to do the right thing and will buy software thats reasonably priced. The use of persistent licensing reminders can help honest users remember to do the right thing. Those who dont take heed are a lost cause; theyll just get the cracked versions, anyway.

Should you keep your users happy by letting them install your software on that extra system? Or should you strictly enforce the license, preventing a use that makes life easier for your user?

Vendors, listen to me: A user who feels youre an adversary wont recommend you to anyone. But a happy user who feels like youre a partner will be your best salesperson. Thats something youd be getting for free. Think about that.

Jim Rapozas e-mail address is