Down With Activation

Software vendors and users can live without IT.

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I really appreciate my readers, but, because Im fearful of plagiarism, Im planning to implement anti-plagiarism mechanisms that will have the unfortunate side effect of preventing you from reading my column how and where you want to. While that may inconvenience some, most readers will hardly notice these controls.

Hey, Im kidding! I know it would be simple for you to read some other column thats almost as good with a lot less hassle. And I have no desire to treat you, a valued reader, as if you were a criminal. Some software vendors have yet to learn this lesson. They seem to think it is OK to inconvenience their users and treat them like criminals if doing so might save a few dollars by cutting down on piracy and reducing casual sharing of their products.

The latest vendor to follow this line of thinking is Macromedia, which has incorporated product activation into its new line of MX 2004 products. Activation essentially makes it impossible to install multiple copies of Macromedia applications without purchasing corresponding licenses.

Of course companies should pay for every copy of software they use. And, for the record, I think Macromedias implementation of product activation goes further than most to minimize hassle for users (see software/activation/faq).

For example, Macromedia recognizes that many developers work on more than one system, such as a desktop and a laptop, so the vendor makes it possible to activate the product on two systems. Also, since Macromedia provides fully functional 30-day trials of its products, developers who need to do work at client sites can use the trial licenses. Macromedia also offers activation-free volume licenses.

But while this approach may seem reasonable, it is full of potential hassles and inconveniences for users. Outside of Web design firms, few companies will purchase enough licenses for Macromedia products to warrant a volume license. And while the trial licenses sound good, picture a consultant who visits a client on-site every few months. The consultant would have to reinstall the application upon each visit.

Probably most annoying and unfair is the two-system allowance. In the Web and design development world, it is common for a workers everyday work system to consist of both a Mac and a PC, since having both lets a worker easily test and move between the two worlds. But the Macromedia two-system allowance works only if both systems use the same operating system. This means someone who uses two systems on the same OS pays for only one license, but someone who uses a Mac and a PC pays for two licenses.

Macromedia uses activation technology from Macrovision to protect its products. Another customer of Macrovision was Intuit, but Macromedia clearly didnt learn from Intuits experience.

Intuit added product activation to the most recent version of its popular TurboTax software, TurboTax 2002, released at the beginning of this year. This led many customers to move to other tax preparation programs. The backlash was so bad that Intuit is removing the activation technology and recently released an apology to its customers for the inconvenience it caused.

While Macromedia and Intuit have different products, there are many similarities between the two companies. Both are clear market leaders in their respective product categories. And both probably felt that if a few angry users left because of activation, their departure would be offset by the reduction in piracy and unauthorized use.

Intuit learned the hard way that it is far too easy for angry users to turn to capable and less restrictive options. And Intuit had a benefit that Macromedia doesnt: Users have to purchase new versions of tax preparation software every year. Macromedia not only will lose sales to users moving to competing vendors such as Adobe, but it also will lose sales to users who stick with the less restrictive previous versions of Macromedia products.

This is what customers should do. While the new Macromedia products are good, they arent that much better than the previous versions. And no company should be rewarded for treating its customers like criminals.

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eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at