Opinion: Page (1) of 2 - 10/31/05 Email this story to a friend. email article Print this page (Article printing at MyDmn.com).print page facebook

Product Activation and the World of Tomorrow

War is over, if they want it By Kevin Schmitt

Now that us lowly users have been unwillingly pushed down the slippery slope that is product activation, this particular article is equivalent to the proverbial closing of the barn doors after the horse has escaped. Actually, it's more like picking up the door and leaning it on the charred ruins of the barn after it burned down years ago, what with the horse having run out to flee the fire, but I digress. Since activation refuses to just go away entirely, I still (naively) think that there's a balance that can be struck between legitimate users and software publishers.

Back in the days before the Web, and even before the widespread adoption of CD ROM drives, software piracy (for lack of a better term) wasn't too much of an issue. Sure, programs could be passed around and installed on multiple machines, but there was a degree of physicality involved that made widespread casual copying of software impractical. I also remember (and rather fondly, as pathetic a sentiment as that is in this particular context) rudimentary measures such as when Photoshop would check for other instances of the same serial number running across AppleTalk networks (and it always seemed to find one on my college Mac lab back in the day). But the Internet, as it did with so many other aspects of modern life, changed the game.

Fast forward to today, where just about all creative professionals have at least one program installed that requires activation in order to operate past an arbitrary trial period. Just off the top of my head, I could probably list a dozen or so programs with at least some form of activation, and that's just the small number I can even think of. Some Mac users may be among the last to fall in line (so to speak), but with the advent of Adobe's CS2 suite the halcyon days of an activation-free system are all but over.


Now, it's no secret that I strongly dislike the very concept of activation. And when I say activation, I mean it as a subset of the the larger scourge that is DRM, or Digital Rights Management. I realize that some may not count activation as actual DRM, but to me, DRM is a handy umbrella term to describe this new era of both software- and hardware-based anti-piracy efforts (beyond simple serial numbers, in the case of software) that seem to be getting more and more restrictive all the time. But while I hate it, at the same time I think I get it. I get the need for publishers to try to protect their various properties and franchises. I get that many of these companies are also publicly traded, and as such have shareholders who expect them to do nothing less (the fact that "professional" pirates are still managing to come up with kracks and l33t w@r3z and whatever else they do with their time notwithstanding). But while I may not like what's going on, it gives me hope that many of these emerging schemes, at least in the software space, are actually pretty fair, at least in theory. And when they haven't been, customers have thus far been able to vote with their wallets (*cough* Quark *cough*), but the fact that programs like Photoshop and Flash have no real competition is a disturbing trend, at least with regards to being able to pick up stakes and head for greener pastures. All things considered, though, and ignoring principle for a moment (which is a recurring theme of this piece), activation isn't off to as bad a start as it could have been, which is good, I guess. But it's not exactly a revelation when I declare that legitimate users tend to be the ones that bear the brunt when activation doesn't work as smoothly as the marketing droids say the various systems should (which probably happens more often than is admitted to, I might add).

Nightmare scenarios, and some suggestions

I'm going to pick on Macromedia a bit here, since their activation process is the one I have the most experience with. Put another way, of all the piracy protection I "use," Macromedia's has gone haywire on me more than any other. And in the interest of full disclosure, I currently deal with piracy prevention, in various forms, from Apple (iTunes Music Store purchases), Macromedia (Flash and Director), Microsoft (Windows XP), and Newtek (LightWave). Since I'm primarily a Mac user and am still using Photoshop and Illustrator CS1, Adobe is out of the mix for now (but with their impending absorption of Macromedia, which may have already happened depending on when you read this, it's only a matter of time).

So yeah, I'm going to pick on Macromedia, because as part of doing business I have no alternative but to use some of their offerings. Don't get me wrong?I love Flash (seeing as I recently gave Flash 8 Professional a glowing "Must Buy" review and all). It's gotten more and more powerful (and more importantly, accepted) with each release, and I love that Macromedia hasn't fallen victim to complacency, even as Flash has ruled the roost (which is good, considering Microsoft is potentially mounting a challenge with Sparkle). Flash is the most important tool in my arsenal, at least with regards to me making a living. That stated, though, the bottom line is that it irks me that I have to consider, of all things, the activation ramifications of even the most minute system change. While the first activation tends to be as seamless as it's billed, it's once the inevitable entropy takes over on a system that the activation scheme tends to get cranky. Granted, the first activation is probably all many users ever see of the process, but once any sort of chaos sets in, activation can (and, in my case, usually does) break.

Sometimes the reason is that I've had the audacity to perform a fresh OS install, and even after using the license transfer function like a good boy, I'm not allowed to reactivate once my system is back up to speed. Sometimes it's a botched software update, as was the case with a Director patch, the Read Me file of which assured me deactivation/reactivation wasn't necessary, and yet was very much necessary when all was said and done. Sometimes it's a disk failure, and there is no opportunity at all to transfer the license properly. Sometimes it's because I've apparently transferred the license (to the same system, I might add) in excess of whatever arbitrary number is acceptable, and am thus prevented from deactivating at all. Each time any of those scenarios happen, I am compelled to call the activation center, explain myself, and hope that my situation will be deemed worthy of another chance. So yeah, while the system is fair in that I'm allowed two installs and have the opportunity to transfer my license, there's something fundamentally wrong here. There's something wrong when my heart is in my throat, feeling as if I've committed some sort of crime, and begging a perfect stranger to continue to let me use software I've spent thousands of dollars over the years to purchase (sorry, license) and upgrade. There's something wrong when I put off needed system maintenance or upgrades because activation might break. There's something wrong, but it can be easily fixed, and done so in a way that's compatible with the current system (rather than replacing it). And in the continued interest of fairness, Macromedia has never failed to make things right in situations when I have had to call. However, the loss of control is what's at issue here. The more a company mistrusts its users, and the less control a user feels he or she has, the more incentive a user has to look elsewhere (again, I cough in Quark's general direction). But in some cases, there's nowhere else to go, leaving customers with residual bitterness and with no choice other than to continue to deal with the company directly responsible for the situation in the first place. See the problem? So what's to be done to find the balance, especially with regards to software that has no real alternative? Here are some ideas:

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Related Keywords:activation, drm, digital rights management


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