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'Activation' curbs may hamper more software launches

Bangalore March 30. Microsoft's controversial policy — first unveiled with its "Windows XP" release last year — of limiting the customer's ability to install it as often as required, is likely to be copied by other leading software makers in the near future. Microsoft first launched its "product activation" procedure, then extended it to almost its full product line including the flagship Windows operating system and the "Office" suite. There were howls of protest from users worldwide, at what they considered were unreasonable curbs on their right to use a legally-bought software in a flexible way — reinstalling it whenever they purchased a new machine or upgraded the old one. The online activation process provided the manufacturer with a "sneak peek" into the precise configuration of the customer's PC platform, information which it stored away and compared with the parameters of the machine every time the software was reinstalled. If this was done more than 3-4 times, the software could be " locked" — and Microsoft could decide whether or not to unlock it.

Experts suggested that there could be perfectly legitimate reasons why a customer might want to reinstall the software multiple times - in the event of crashes; when moving to a better machine or upgrading an existing one with a new processor or more memory. For the manufacturer to exercise control over such customer choice, was widely seen as an infringement of the rights of ownership and fair use. Microsoft has consistently justified its activation curbs as action to prevent rampant illegal copying of its products. Now it seems that widespread customer unhappiness not withstanding, other software leaders whose products are popular in India are poised to emulate Microsoft's example and "lock in" their future releases with similar "product activation" schemes: Symantec, makers of the "Norton Antivirus" product have already incorporated activation procedures for downloadable versions of their software. "Internet Week" reported last week that the company planned to extend product activation to all their shrink-wrapped products by next year.

Adobe, makers of the graphic and imaging tool market leader "Photoshop", is likely to `test the waters' with a trial activation regime. "IT News Australia" quotes Adobe's global marketing director that the activation rollout planned in that country for three months starting April, will however not, like Microsoft's Windows XP and Office, require reactivation with every hardware change.

Sun Microsystems whose CEO, Scott McNealy, used every forum during his maiden trip to India last week, for a little "Microsoft bashing", has not resorted to product activation. But it is said to be mooting a novel pricing mechanism for "Orion", its new all-in-one server software suite, where the size of the staff at the customer's location dictates the cost. The company promises its new system will end up both simpler and cheaper — but the idea that software pricing which used to be pegged to the number and size of the installations on which it was ported will now vary with the number of potential users is certainly unusual.

In at least one case in the U.S., customers confronted by a product activation requirement have taken the software vendor to court. Users of the 2002 version of "Turbo Tax", a popular tax calculation software were annoyed to find that the package would work only on the first platform on which it was installed. This hassled thousands of users who liked to perform the calculation on their laptop computers; then transfer the results to their home computer to take a printout or mail the tax return. The Los Angeles Superior Court is slated to take an early decision on whether the case filed against Turbo Tax's makers, Intuit, can be given "class action" status — in which case all customers can join the suit and seek damages.

The legal course of this case will be followed with great interest by both software vendors and customers worldwide, since it may well open the floodgates of public resentment at perceived restrictive practices launched by the industry in response to the growing threat of software privacy.

Future trade practices may hinge on courts' views in different countries, on the central question: Can the manufacturer of a product continue to exercise control over it even after he has sold it to you and even stop you from using it? Even if users here seek a similar legal recourse, Indian courts may find it a challenge to pronounce on such tricky points of law connected with emerging technologies which many in the legal profession — bench or bar — are still groping to understand. A leading IT industry voice, InfoWorld, told the software industry: "We all know instinctively that product activation is really about controlling, limiting and ultimately terminating the customer's use of your product, at your discretion... Fine. But don't insult your customers by claiming that it's all for the sake of fighting piracy".

When Microsoft first inaugurated the "activation" era, many observers predicted that provoking adverse user reaction would soon prove to be counter-productive and that the company would ultimately go slow on such schemes. This has not happened.

Interestingly Microsoft as well as Symantec and Adobe, are market leaders in product niches where they moot such controversial "control" technologies. They are safe when they seemingly say: "if you don't like our conditions, don't buy our products!" - because the customer has no serious choice. This week, it appears a growing section of the industry believes that "activation" is the way to go — even if it triggers off the inevitable anger of customers.

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