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Complaints mount from TurboTax customers

Customers are griping about antipiracy technology included in the tax-preparation program, saying it slows down systems and makes it a pain to reactivate TurboTax on a new PC.

Software maker Intuit has created an uninstaller program for its TurboTax tax-preparation programs, as customer complaints mount about antipiracy technology included in the software.

The uninstaller, which TurboTax users will receive when they update the software, completely removes the program from computers, along with the files associated with it, including SafeCast, Macrovision software that Intuit uses to bar unlicensed distribution of TurboTax.

Intuit spokesman Scott Gulbransen said the uninstaller was created in response to customer concerns about SafeCast, which creates its own directory on the PC's hard drive and runs in the background whenever the PC is working. Customers have complained that SafeCast remains on their hard drive even after they've removed the rest of TurboTax, and they've accused the Macrovision software of slowing down their PCs.

"Because SafeCast doesn't bog down systems and it doesn't monitor what the PC is doing, we didn't think early on it would be an issue," Gulbransen said. "But if our customers are telling us they want to be able to do something, and we feel it's valid, we try to accommodate them."

Complaints are continuing to collect in online forums, however, concerning product activation. Intuit announced last year that it would limit unlicensed distribution of TurboTax by incorporating technology that links each copy of the program to a particular PC. Because of SafeCast, customers can only print and electronically file returns from the PC the software was activated on.

The activation code that unlocks TurboTax is stored on the hard drive and kept hidden from the customer. Contrary to previous claims by Intuit, that means anyone buying a new PC or replacing a hard drive needs to call Intuit support to reactivate the product, a process some have complained is cumbersome and unwarranted.

"If you uninstall, and then install on a different computer, you either have to beg for a new activation code or buy a new license," Ed, a Texas tech support worker who declined to give his full name, said in an e-mail interview. "Life is way too short for this kind of use a $30 piece of software."

Eldon Wiggs, a retired banker from Lynden, Wash., said he replaced his PC's hard drive recently. After five unanswered e-mail requests to Intuit, he talked by phone with an Intuit support worker and later a sales representative, both of whom insisted he had to pay to reactivate Turbotax.

"I told him that was extortion...and I was being denied the use of a product I had purchased in good faith," Wiggs said in an e-mail interview. "He then said he would talk to his supervisor and after a little time came back to say they would activate my TurboTax, without any further charge."

Other customers have reported having to request repeated reactivations after using hard disk utilities such as partitioning programs, which cause SafeCast to assume it's not on the same PC anymore. Still more object to the way product activation works.

"It turns out that activation is an intrusive scheme that appears to place data on the user's hard disk in nonstandard methods, apparently in an attempt to hide its mechanism and function," said Scott Smart, a retired naval system engineer from Mililani, Hawaii. "History has shown that such schemes tend to be fragile and expose the user to consequential damage if the scheme has a failure mode which the developer did not adequately test for."

Intuit's FAQ on product activation includes pages for several installation errors Intuit is still investigating.

"There's always a certain percentage of error codes that come up that are unexpected," Intuit's Gulbransen said. "There are a wide variety of PC systems, and how our system interacts with a customer's PC is sometimes unknown."

Some of the complaints about TurboTax's product activation are based on misinformation, including allegations the technology will prevent customers from reinstalling software if they need to access older tax information in coming years. Product activation is free after Oct. 16 of the filing year, the last day for filing an extended return. After that, anyone can install and use the software without paying to reactivate it.

Intuit is one of the first major software makers to use product activation to prevent piracy, following Microsoft's introduction of a more obtrusive version of the technology.

Gulbransen said Intuit has worked hard to make product activation as unobtrusive as possible while effectively stemming the uncalculated losses Intuit has suffered year after year from unlicensed distribution of TurboTax. "We need to protect our intellectual property and the products we spend millions developing every year," he said.

Rob Sterling, an analyst for Jupiter Research, said the customer complaints are unlikely to dent Intuit's sales.

"They were taking it on the chin for years in terms of people doing multiple installs," Sterling said. "I don't see how the amount of sales they might lose from people irked at product activation would outweigh what they get from people not being able to pass it around...A lot of people see TurboTax as an indispensable product, and a lot of people were stealing it."

Sterling said there's also likely to be more reluctance to switch tax programs than other types of software, especially for people who import data from Intuit's Quicken personal finance application.

"The thing about the way people do their taxes is it changes very slowly, because you only do it once a year," Sterling said. "And nobody does it for fun. They want the simplest, most comprehensive way to get it done."