Product Activation Sucks

April 15, 2007 5:11 PM

My RSS newsreader of choice was NewsFire. It's a great, polished product. Despite a minor annoyance with the trial version, I slapped down my credit-card for a full version of the software around two years ago, and have been incredibly happy with it since. I can't put my finger on the reason, but whenever I subscribe to feeds in NetNewsWire or Safari RSS I end up with thousands of unread posts in my less-important feeds, but with NewsFire I'm always on top of my subscriptions.

The registration system for NewsFire is a bit weird. There's no license key to lose. To activate the full version of the application you just type in your email address, and it gets verified against some central licence server.

This was all well and good until the last time I reinstalled OS X on my MacBook. When it came time to re-register NewsFire, I was told that my email address was not valid. I sent off a quick support mail to NewsFire's author, David Watanabe, and got the following reply:

While you may now activate your software again, the evidence suggests that you've activated your single-user license from a suspiciously wide variety of locations. An explanation would be appreciated. I don't want to have to presume this is breach of license.

I'm a nerd. Over the two years I've had NewsFire, I've moved it between three or four different computers. I've also reinstalled the OS on my MacBook from scratch several times as I've been playing with preview seeds of OS X. As such I've activated NewsFire a lot: from home, from work, from the company's San Francisco apartment, who knows where else.

Not to mention that I've been vocal in my support of the product, so any number of people would know both my email address, and that I have a registration.

I was in the middle of writing a response detailing all this when I thought: "Wait a minute." What if Microsoft had done this? What if my copy of Windows had ceased to work because I didn't fit their profile of a legitimate user, and I was required to submit an account of my movements to Redmond to ensure it would continue to work in the future?

Oh yes, they did. And it was universally reviled.

So my response was curt:

I started doing so, but then I realised that I'd rather not have to recount my movements to a complete stranger just for the privilege of running an RSS reader.

I'm also worried by the fact that a licence I thought was perpetual can be revoked so arbitrarily.

I received no response to my mail, but I wasn't surprised today when I couldn't register NewsFire on my newly wiped MacBook. David doesn't want me as a customer, and given how few rights standard software licences actually grant the purchaser these days, I suspect he has the right to make that decision.

(17/4: David has refunded me the NewsFire purchase price.)

Product activation sucks. It sucks because your continued use of the software you purchased is forever dependent on the continued availability of the licence server. And it sucks because your licence can be unilaterally revoked because someone, somewhere has decided you must be a pirate.

Continued in Newsfire aftermath...

Previously: The Parable of the Watch

Next: The Two Things about Computer Programming