Software giant, Symantec, is adding product activation technology to all of its upcoming consumer products, starting with Norton Antivirus 2004.
Customers who fail to activate the software by contacting Symantec within 15 days of installing it will be left with a non-functioning application.
Symantec executives say the product activation process is so simple most users won't mind it. They also say they're confident the measures will pay off by preventing large-scale piracy operations from thieves who bootleg Symantec programs and sell them to unsuspecting customers.
Despite such good intentions, one analyst notes that product activation remains a tricky business, and that Symantec runs the risk of alienating loyal, legitimate customers by imposing the technology.
After a user purchased and installed a new Symantec application, they had up to 15 days to complete product activation, Del Smith, Symantec product manager, said. The company automated the activation process with a wizard, he said.
First, users plugged in their software key (printed on the CD sleeve). From there, the wizard checked their hardware configuration, including hard drive serial number and configuration, plus network and video cards, Smith said.
Based on this information, the wizard creates an alphanumeric code. If the software detects an Internet connection, it transmits this code to Symantec. Otherwise, the wizard prompts users to call an automated phone service to complete activation. The entire process should take just a few minutes, he said.
Later, if users upgraded their PC with new hardware or move the software to a new PC, they must reactivate the program, Smith said. However, Symantec built in the capability for each application to be activated up to five times, which the company contends should be more than enough for most users.
"We believe we have a very customer-friendly version of product activation," Smith said. In fact, Symantec ran several pilot programs to test the technology, implementing it in downloaded versions of Norton Antivirus 2003 as well as in a few boxed versions. Customer acceptance has been strong, he said.
"We've had more than 250,000 users complete product activation so far, and virtually no complaints," Smith said.
The company plans to implement the activation technology in all English-language versions of its announced 2004 consumer products, including Norton SystemWorks, Norton Internet Security, and Norton Personal Firewall.
Symantec, like other companies that have tried product activation schemes, maintains that it is a matter of protecting its intellectual property. The company estimates large-scale software pirating organisations create and distribute more than 3.6 million illegal copies of its software in a single year.
These products also posed a risk to unsuspecting buyers, Smith said. Users who unwittingly buy these fake copies at best find themselves without technical documentation or support. At worst, they're exposed to corrupt discs, faulty software, and viruses, he said.
Of course, there's also the matter of piracy's effect on Symantec's revenues. Smith declined to estimate how much money the company lost to counterfeiting each year, but clearly it was substantial.
All of these factors add up to a perfectly legitimate reason to implement product activation, Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, said. However, that doesn't mean customers will like it. Both Microsoft (with Windows XP) and Intuit (Turbo Tax) had legitimate reasons to try product activation, and both suffered harsh criticism from unhappy users, Enderle notes.
Intuit customers complained about buggy installs, while others said the technology limited the product's usefulness. Many long-time users of the software threatened to move to competing products, and one even filed a lawsuit. Eventually the company dropped the technology.