Activation Agitation

With the release of Adobe Creative Suite 2, Adobe will add a new software activation feature to stop customers from violating their software license. To hear the hue and cry over the news, you’d think that the activation features in CS2 involve beefy, ill-tempered Adobe employees who hover over your shoulder and give you the ol’ stink-eye if you even think about putting Photoshop on an unauthorized Mac.

OK, that’s an exaggeration that doesn’t account for some very legitimate concerns that users might have about privacy and convenience. But a close examination of how Adobe went about integrating activation into CS2 suggests that those concerns were very much on the company’s mind.

First, a little background: software activation typically links a copy of a program to a specific computer. (Think of it as nearly identical to the Fairplay restrictions that put a limit on the number of computer you can on which you can play iTunes Music Store purchases.) If that doesn’t sound like it will do much to deter the folks who spend every waking hour figuring out ways to crack software copy protection, it won’t—and it’s not really intended to. Rather, activation is aimed at thwarting casual copying—the practice of installing the program on more computers than allowed by the software license. The software industry figures that a large chunk of the estimated $29 billion a year lost to piracy can be blamed on this seemingly innocuous practice.

Consumers are understandably wary of activation since early instances of the technology were so poorly implemented. And honestly, activation procedures that put too much of a burden on honest users should be hooted down. But not all activation procedures are that burdensome—and, at first glance anyway, it looks like Adobe managed to avoid the mistakes made by other software firms.

The Business Software Alliance, a trade group for software makers, has a list of best practices for including activation features. (You can download it for yourself here.) Stack up what Adobe claims to have done with CS2 against that list, and the maker of Photoshop and InDesign comes off looking pretty good.

Privacy

What the BSA Says: Activation shouldn’t collect personally identifiable data without users’ knowledge.

What Adobe Did: When you activate CS2 with Adobe, all the company gets is the software serial number and a unique ID for your computer that’s effectively a random number. Other information—your name, your computer configuration, any other software you might have installed—is off limits.

Ease of Use

What the BSA Says: Activation shouldn’t be burdensome to the user; ideally, it’s a one-time process.

What Adobe Did: It is a one-time process with Adobe. And the only thing activation adds is a single step to the already-required process of entering in a serial number when you install the software.

Full Disclosure

What the BSA Says: Software makers should clearly explain the activation process.

What Adobe Did: Drew McManus, Adobe’s Director of Worldwide Anti-Piracy, spoke at length to Macworld ’s Jim Dalrymple about what Adobe is doing; this isn’t something the company tried to sneak into the CS2 upgrade while hoping that no one noticed.

Support

What the BSA Says: Users need access to documentation and tech support for any activation questions.

What Adobe Did: CS2’s activation dialog box offers up an explanation. On top of that, Adobe has a FAQ on its Web site for any activation questions.

Speed

What the BSA Says: Activation should be taken care of quickly.

What Adobe Did: There’s no way to judge this until CS2 is actually shipping. (Dalrymple, who’s had a chance to test drive the feature, tells me it takes about 10 to 15 seconds.) The one-time process—coupled with the fact that Adobe lets you activate software either online or over the phone—suggests the company got it right here, too.

User Control

What the BSA Says: Users should be able to easily move programs to new computers, as allowed by the software license.

What Adobe Did: There’s a Transfer Activation command in the Help menu, but it’s impossible to say how seamless this will be until you actually have to do it. (By that same token, it’s also impossible to decry this feature as overly cumbersome until you actually use it.)

As always, the devil is in the details. What sounds fairly reasonable on paper could turn out to be horribly flawed in practice, just as some of the hand-wringing going on about activation these days could be a lot of noise over nothing. Until then, Adobe seems to have made every good-faith effort to make the activation in CS2 as painless and invisible as possible. It might be nice to show a little of that good faith in return, at least until the product actually hits the shelves.

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