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Symantec adds product activation

The software maker adds controversial antipiracy technology to the new edition of its Norton Antivirus software.

Security software and service company Symantec has added a controversial type of antipiracy technology to the new version of its main virus-zapping program.

Norton Antivirus 2004, which Symantec announced Monday for release next month, will use product activation, an increasingly common technique to tie a copy of an application to a particular PC. Symantec plans to add activation to the rest of its consumer software line over the next year.

Del Smith, senior product manger for Symantec, said activation is intended to protect consumers from widespread counterfeit copies of Symantec programs. The company estimates at least 3.6 million bogus copies of its programs are sold annually, causing headaches both for Symantec and unsuspecting buyers, who find out too late that the software isn't doing the job.

"What consumers don't understand is that while those units may appear to be legitimate, there are a number of risks associated with pirated software...including the likelihood that it really isn't protecting their PC," Smith said.

Microsoft was the first major software maker to broadly use product activation, introducing it in the Windows XP operating system, amid concerns that the technology would balk at simple changes in a PC's hardware.

Intuit later joined the product activation camp, using a system developed by software maker Macrovision in the last edition of its TurboTax tax preparation software. Widespread complaints about botched installations, PC slowdowns and inadequate disclosure eventually prompted the company to back off on activation.

Adobe Systems and Macromedia also have experimented with activation in recent releases.

Smith said Symantec's implementation of product activation is similar to Microsoft's and does not use Macrovision technology. Symantec's system generates a unique alphanumeric code to identify a PC configuration and ties it to the product key for a particular piece of software. It stores license information on the PC's hard drive and allows for up to five activations for the same product key.

"That accounts for users who make frequent upgrades or other changes to their PC," Smith said. "We've designed the solution to be flexible."

Al Gillen, an analyst for research firm IDC, said Symantec's use of product activation is less likely to cause friction with customers, due to the way antivirus software works.

"With antivirus software, you very routinely go back to the vendor for downloads, so you have an ongoing relationship with that vendor," Gillen said. "If you accept that general notion that your system is going to be talking with that company on a pretty regular basis, the activation process is just another part of that."

Smith said more than 250,000 customers completed the product activation process with trial versions of Symantec products this year, with negligible customer complaints.