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Software makers promise smoother activation

Companies mull the lessons learned from consumer protests over the early usage of antipiracy technology in software, in particular in Intuit's tax software.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Software makers are getting smarter, but no less insistent, about product activation in the face of noisy customer protests, according to software executives gathered here.

Product activation, an increasingly common antipiracy technique that links a piece of software to a specific PC, was one of the main topics at SoftSummit. The two-day symposium was sponsored by Macrovision, a leading supplier of tools for enabling activation, preventing copying of CDs and handling other rights management tasks.

Software executives acknowledged that early attempts at activation--particularly Intuit's widely protested and later abandoned decision to use the technology in its tax software--had shown limitations in the process.

"Unfortunately, I think Intuit was the proverbial pioneer that got the arrows in their back," said William Krepick, CEO of Macrovision, which supplied the activation technology used by Intuit. "I don't think either they, or we, appreciated the level of the consumer reaction."

Among the lessons learned was the need to have full and proactive communication with customers to explain how activation works, Krepick said. Another was the importance of making the process flexible, as demonstrated in the relatively uneventful introduction of production activation in products from Macromedia and Symantec.

The Intuit flap "really put us on notice; we have really got to be on top of this as a customer issue," said Tom Hale, senior vice president of business strategy for Macromedia.

One result of the flap was Macromedia's clear separation of the activation process--in which the only information exchanged is an anonymous serial number--from registration, in which the customer is asked to provide identifying information.

"They need to know we're really focused on their privacy," Hale said, adding that the company would be in deep trouble if its software became associated with the idea of Trojan horses or spyware.

Semantics are also important, too, Hale said, noting that Macromedia adopted the term "casual copying" as preferable to the loaded "piracy."

As product activation becomes more common, software makers need to think about rewarding customers for putting up with it, said Drew McManus, director of worldwide antipiracy programs at Adobe Systems, which is doing limited testing of product activation.

"We're all really concerned about how this affects the honest customer," he said. "Right now, the best you can say for them is that activation is fast and pretty painless. Over time, as it becomes more pervasive, we're going to have to find a way to introduce customer benefits to it to--in essence--pay them back."