The Trouble with “Genuine” Software

Microsoft wants people to pay for the software they use. Fair enough, lots of time and money went into creating the software most of us take for granted these days. Microsoft Windows XP introduced product activation to the world – basically calling everyone a thief until the customer connects to Microsoft by phone or internet, and submit’s their product key.  Soon, other companies followed suit.

 When XP was introduced, there was two types of product key – the ‘consumer’ one that required activation, and the ‘corporate’ one to keep us IT types happy. The second one worked much better with ‘ghost‘ images and other corporate roll-out techniques. Fair enough again, everyone was more or less happy.

My first problem with software activation was Intuit‘s Quicken product line. I purchased Quicken every year to keep current, and noticed a couple things after product activation kicked in. First off, Intuit started raising the price of Quicken – it climbed from a $50 home product to a $150 financial management suite. I was happy with the $50 product – but here’s the other shoe. Quicken started shutting features off after one year of use. Features like transaction downloads from my bank statements. I don’t mind that I might lose e-Trade, but come on! Bank statements? The download doesn’t even involve Intuit’s servers – that’s between me and my bank. I grumbled, but carried on using the product, even connecting it up to my PDA for categorizing things on the road.

To make things better, Intuit was constantly calling me a thief on my bill payment days. I had to call and reactivate my Quicken XG 2004 software a half dozen times. Now, here’s another habit I have that a good portion of the workers in my time zone have – I tend to manage my finances at home, after my workday is complete. When product activation kicked in, I could just call their 24 hour phone line and reactivate, right? Wrong. Intuit’s activation phone number was only available from 9-5, eastern time, Monday to Friday. So I’ll have to take time off work, or purchase a new copy of Quicken for $150.

Software activation kicks in when the computer hardware is changed too much, making the software believe it’s been transferred to another computer. Never mind things like fair use or trying to setup your financial software on a backup pc after a crash. In my case, it was annoying how it happened – I would change some hardware, in one case it was simply a new mouse, on Monday. The software would test OK after the change for a couple days, and then the anvil would come down on Friday evening – right around the time I logged in to pay the bills. Intuit holds my finances hostage until Monday morning in that case. Unacceptable.

Today’s bit of fun is Windows XP related. I’m now in day two trying to get a computer activated at the office. It’s been loaded with XP from the OEM CD that Dell provided. The sticker on the bottom of the laptop has the Microsoft seal on it, and it’s a perfectly valid OEM Product Key. Problem is that Microsoft’s server doesn’t agree with me in this case. Yesterday I could not get through to Microsoft by phone. Today, I got through and had to repeat a 54 digit number three times (once to a computer, twice to humans) before I was told they were working on one of their computers and to call back later. Meanwhile, I’m the one that gets stuck telling a Vice President that they’ll have to wait a couple days to use their laptop computer.

The next up is my GPS, a Magellan eXplorist. When I bought it, the map software wasn’t ready so I found myself shelling out $200 US for older maps. One year later, they released the software that understood my ‘newer’ model GPS – but also stipulated that the software was for one GPS and the licence was not for use on more than one GPS, or transferrable to a new GPS. The last part gets me. I should be able to upgrade my GPS unit and transfer my expensive maps to the new unit. Again, this is enforced by software activation.

I’m also waiting for activation keys for a line-of-business application that the vendor has not even bothered to answer us on. Our options so far? Wait, and leave three salespeople sitting around – or get an alternative program – if one exists.

The problem with this type of piracy enforcement, is that it does nothing to stop software piracy. In reality, it drives paying customers away to other products when the frustration level gets too much. My financial software is now Microsoft Money, I’m seriously pitching Linux desktops at the office, and there’s a darn good chance I’ll change GPS vendors for my next go-around.

Windows Vista is promising to take the activation arena to a whole new level, something I don’t look forward to after my experiences.

Computers can be frustrating enough for Joe Public without a guilty-until-proven innocent style accusation that everyone is a thief. I understand the need to protect one’s investment, but if you’re going to turn people’s purchases off, you’d better have a darned good customer service approach for dealing with upgrades, changes and mistakes – and it better be available 24×7. 

The future is bright for open source software.

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