In case you are not aware, Microsoft’s new version of Office for Mac 2011 implements an activation scheme to validate licensing. I have been burned by this garbage on multiple occasions in the past; to the point that I will not use software that implements an activation scheme unless I have absolutely no choice. In the case of Office, there are several viable alternatives, so I will not be upgrading and instead will move Binary Formations over to iWork exclusively.

I think software activation is one of the most consumer-unfriendly things a developer can do. It is something we do not use at Binary Formations. Sure, I understand the desire to fight software piracy, but when this stuff fails, it can do so in spectacular ways that require complex fixes, not to mention wasting your customers’ valuable time.

In light of this, I decided to repost an entry from January 2008 on the prior version of this blog to serve as a lesson on just how horrible activation can be. It is a long and angry post — a masterpiece of vitriol concerning a technique that is being adopted with increased frequency by software companies to screw over their customers, with a focus on one such company in particular (*cough* Adobe, you freaking jerks *cough*). There are no unicorns or rainbows to be found here. You have been warned…

I have been trying to write this blog post for over a week now, but every time I went to type the word Adobe my fingers instead found the combination of keys that made up two words, six letters each, the first being a type of parent. A decidedly less than wholesome, definitely not FCC-approved couple of words, apropos though they may be. Even now I have a hard time just saying the name without it coming out sounding like something that rhymes with ‘other trucker’.

Why am I so furious with Adobe? Activation, that’s why. Activation, in its simplest form, is a piracy protection scheme based on a two key system. The first key is the product key or serial number you are given at the time of purchase. When you install the software and enter the key, the activation system contacts the vendor to see if the key is in the vendor’s active list, indicating the software is already in use elsewhere. If the key does not appear in the vendor’s list as already being in use, you are given the second key, often referred to as an activation code. Sometimes you are given the second key directly, but most of the time it is sent back to the program under the covers and the user is never allowed to see it. In either case, both keys are required for the software to become activated, allowing the user full access to the program or features they paid to use.

The more complex forms of activation take the concept from the annoying, “Mother, may I please use this software I already paid for?”, mechanism to a highly distilled form of binary evil (you can see that the 1s and 0s that make up the activation routines actually all have devil-horns, hooves, and pointed tails when you look at them under a microscope). Microsoft is widely considered to be the grand poo-bah, a master practitioner, of this form of activation by adding some innovative new twists to the scheme, such as having to reactivate if you make too many changes to your computer’s hardware or risking the possibility of Vista going into an un-usable, so-called reduced-functionality mode if the scryers in Redmond determine your operating system is no longer genuine (supposedly service pack one for Windows Vista will contain a version of WGA that contains 50% less evil than the current version — we’ll have to wait and see).

As for Adobe, I’m not entirely sure how far their activation mechanism goes. And though I have read quite a few anecdotal accounts of some of the onerous behavior employed by Adobe’s activation system, I haven’t been able to verify any of it. I do know it goes well beyond the simple approach I described earlier. I also know that when it fails it can destroy your spirit, leaving behind a burned-out cynical husk that believes the world is actually some sort of gigantic torture device that exists solely for the amusement of its creator, which if I had to guess is probably the board of directors at Adobe.

A little over a week ago I was screwed over by activation twice in a period of ten minutes, first by MindVision and then by Adobe. I’m not fond of either company anymore, but it is Adobe that has earned the bulk of my ire with its ‘sucks to be you’ attitude when their activation systems fails and does so catastrophically (this is not hyperbole, the error message actually uses the word catastrophically).

So what happened? Well, I had installed Leopard on my MacBook Pro laptop just after it was released a few months ago. I like a clean system so it was a fresh install. Plus, it doesn’t take long to re-install all of the applications I use and restoring custom settings is no big deal under OS X(unlike with Windows where application settings are stored in a multi-megabyte tree of confusion called the Registry).

Everything worked fine except FileStorm, the application I use to create the disk images for Home Inventory and tesl8. I kept getting an error number -2004 whenever I entered the serial number I was given when I purchased the product. I e-mail MindVision support and was told I needed to install an updated version of the eSellerate framework. Having a lot of other things to deal with at the time, I let it slide and didn’t get around to it until it came time to push Home Inventory version 1.7 out the door.

Not wanting to create the disk image for the new Home Inventory version manually, I installed the updated framework, got FileStorm up and running, and was able to create the image file. Everything seemed fine until just after making the image file I tried to launch Dreamweaver and was greeted with this:

NOTE: When I pulled this post from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, the image was no longer a part of it. I don’t remember the exact language of the error window that was presented, but it was probably something along the lines of “Ha ha! You are a stupid moron for buying software with activation! Die! Die! Die!”

“The licensing subsystem has failed catastrophically.” What a wonderful message! And it wasn’t just Dreamweaver. Nope. It was every major component in Adobe Create Suite 3. Photoshop: Fail! Flash: Fail: Illustrator: Fail! Contribute and Acrobat: well, they would have failed I’m sure, but those programs are such crap I didn’t bother installing them. I paid for these applications and now after working just fine for months they all just up and quit.

Time to get in touch touch with Adobe’s support, but first I needed to find out exactly what was in that framework MindVision had said I needed to install. A little poking around and… I’m sure you guessed by now what I found: FileStorm uses activation, albeit a simple version of the technique, and it was the activation mechanism that was failing. Bad MindVision! No more money for you! You guys are now on my ‘do not buy from’ list.

Before continuing with my story I need to take a moment to clear something up. I use eSellerate to handle the processing side of things when you purchase Home Inventory. When you buy a copy, you receive a serial number that you enter to remove the 25-item demonstration restriction. Home Inventory does not, nor will it ever, use activation. Nor does it require any external framework, server, or anything else. That serial number is all you need. It is validated locally in the application itself, using a simple mathematical algorithm. Home Inventory does not call home to Binary Formations, eSellerate, or anyone else to do this validation.

Back to the story. At this point I call Adobe support and am put through to a nice and apologetic first tier support person who gives me a few things to try to get the Creative Suite applications running again. Unfortunately none of those things work so I am transferred to a second tier support engineer who was a complete and utter douche bag.

The bulk of our conversation went something like this:

Complete Douche Bag: You need to try the next thing on the sheet.

Me: What next thing? What sheet?

CDB: (silence)

Me: Hello?!?

CDB: Did you do it yet?

Over and over this guy ignored my questions. Often I was met with silence and when he did manage to utter a response more often than not it had little to do with the question I had asked. I can only assume this guy was either distracted or stoned. Actually, I’d guess it was a combination of the two: he was stoned and kept getting distracted by the little blinky thing on his computer screen (that would be the cursor, for those of you who work in second tier support at Adobe).

After some more prodding I was finally able to get him to explain the whole deal with this mythical ‘sheet’. It turned out to be a knowledge base article on what to do if you get an activation failure and you are a nice, honest person who does not want to steal from Adobe. It has six possible solutions for the problem. The last solution suggestions you uninstall the entire Creative Suite software and re-install it. Before doing so it tells you to do the following:

For all Creative Suite 3 applications: before you uninstall, you must deactivate the application. If you have an entire Suite installed, then you only need to deactivate from one application.

To deactivate the component or suite: From the CS3 application, Choose Help > Deactivate and follow the on screen instructions.

It made me actually want to cry. Not just tear up a little, but one of those down on your knees, head thrown back, snot coming out of your nose, arms raised toward the sky, screaming, “Why God? Why?”, kind of cries. Adobe, in case you cannot figure out why this statement is so stupid, let me try to clarify it for you: I CANNOT DEACTIVATE THE APPLICATION BECAUSE I HAVE TO RUN THE APPLICATION TO DO IT AND YOUR DEVIL-SPAWNED LICENSING SYSTEM ALLOW ME TO! Is this a hard concept?!? Why don’t you have an external tool that I can run to deactivate everything?

Unable to get any of the non-destructive solutions to work, the support guy told me to search for “cs3 clean script” on the Adobe website and follow the instructions. If that didn’t work he said I would need to reformat my hard drive and install everything again from scratch.

Are you freaking kidding me? Not only can this stupid activation software fail in such a way that I have to spend the better part of an hour on the phone with an absolute moron trying to get it working again, but it can fail so badly that I might have to re-install my entire system! A quick google search search showed that not only can Adobe’s activation scheme fail so spectacularly, but it does… a lot.

What irritates me to the point I am almost shaking with anger is this seems perfectly acceptable to Adobe. The don’t care that they actually screw over paying, honest customers by wasting countless hours of their time, causing them to miss critical deadlines, and lose untold amounts of productivity just so they can thwart some software pirates. Way to go Adobe! Forgive me if I secretly hope you get hit with the mother of all class action lawsui s and lose.

But the insanity didn’t stop there. Oh no. The article the support engineer had me search for is titled, Remove CS3 prerelease software (Creative Suite and individual applications). Say what? I tell him that this is not a pre-release version of CS3 and that I never had any pre-release versions of the software installed on this machine. His response is to go ahead and run it anyway. Oh what fun. Since it took so long for him to respond the question I had time to read through the knowledge base article and found something else to shake my faith in Adobe. Near the top of the article is this little warning:

Warning: Before you use the Adobe CS3Clean Script, it is critical that you back up your hard drive including all data, content, software programs, etc. Failure to do so, and failure to follow the instructions below, could result in a loss of the contents of your hard drive.

As you can imagine, this made just a teeny bit concerned about running the script. And what was Captain Herbal Life’s response when I asked him about the warning? “I’ve never heard of that happening, but I guess it could.” Delicious. Oh well, since it appeared that I had no alternatives left I hung up and prepared to torpedo my laptop.

With the CS3 suite uninstalled (though not deactivated), and against my better judgement, I fired up the clean script. It began with a license agreement, that of course you must agree to before it will do anything, that basically says no matter what kind of damage this thing does to your system, Adobe is not responsible so don’t even try to hold them accountable. Pretty standard stuff. The rest of the process involved answering a few questions and then the script went and did its thing.

Thankfully, it worked. When the script was finished, I went through the CS3 installation process (which takes for-frickin’-ever, by the way) and a few hours after this whole mess began, both FileStorm and the CS3 apps were working and I was able to finish up doing what I needed to do.

This is not the first time an activation failure has bitten me in my glorious behind. In fact is was Microsoft’s decision to put activation in Windows XP and the Windows versions of Office that led to me buying a PowerBook and making the Mac my computing platform of choice. At that point I had vowed never again to purchase any software that used activation or any other draconian anti-piracy scheme.

FileStorm was a mistake. If I had known it used an activation system I never would have purchased it. I know now and will not be doing business with MindVision in the future. I confess that I did know Adobe’s Create Suite 3 made use of activation. Normally I would never have even considered buying if not for one thing: Apple’s transition to the Intel platform. Photoshop CS, which I would have been quite happy to continue using, ran like a dog on my MacBook Pro, so I put my principles aside and purchased CS3 as soon as it was available.

I did search for more consumer friendly alternatives to CS3 before it came out, but I couldn’t find anything that fit the bill, especially for Photoshop. I know I won’t be upgrading to Creative Suite 4 or buying anything else from Adobe as long as they continue to use activation in their products. The good news is CS3 is feature-rich enough to stay useful for a long time. By then there should be some sort of viable alternative. Right? Anyone?

My experience isn’t the only type of failure that can occur with activation. Some implementations won’t work with certain hardware setups (Adobe’s activation scheme has suffered from this), there can be clashes with other activation schemes, you can be stuck with useless software if the vendor doesn’t update the activation system to work with newer operating system versions or if they just flat out quit supporting the product, and on and on.

Software vendors will tell you activation keeps honest users honest. This is utter garbage. By definition an honest user is, well, honest and there is no need for computer program to keep him that way. They also claim activation does not come at the expense of other features. Another lie. In the real world of commercial software development you do not have unlimited time and resources. Each feature takes time and resources to design, implement, test, document, maintain, and support. Activation is a feature just like any other. Depending how far a particular implementation goes, it activation can be a fairly complex feature to implement. The time and resources devoted to designing, implementing, testing, maintaining, and supporting an activation scheme could have been used for features users might actually find useful.

Activation helps prevent casual piracy by allowing software vendors to check up on where and when their software is installed. It is inconvenient enough to circumvent for the average user that many won’t bother to even try. In this it is likely effective in its purpose. However, it does not in any way benefit the consumer who paid for the software. Sure, vendors talk a big game about how piracy keeps the price of software high, but have you ever heard of a major software vendor dropping the price of their wares after introducing activation? I didn’t think so. Activation is of no use to the honest customer. At best it is an affront to his integrity by assuming he has none, but otherwise is harmless. At worst… what I went through does not even begin to come close to the worst.

Shame on you software makers who use this junk. Shame on you for not treating your paying customers with more respect. And shame on those software reviewers who do not disclose whether or not the programs you are reviewing use activation. And for those that do, the activation scheme itself should be reviewed. Does it conflict with any particular hardware configurations or other software? What recourse does the customer have if it fails? Is access to free support available 24 hours a day, seven days week in case the licensing system stops working? Is there a guarantee in the license (not some PR person’s word, but an actual legal statement) that the activation scheme will be disabled via an update if the company stops supporting the software? Not having the answers to these questions can lead to disaster when mission critical and production applications are involved.

Folks, this activation stuff is bad news. Avoid it if you can. Do not let software vendors treat you like a would-be thief when you know you are not. Don’t let them put your productivity at risk.