Register, or lose use of software

February 08, 1999|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

When you install a new program on your PC, the first thing you're likely to see is a registration screen.

This is a form that includes blanks for your name, address, telephone and fax numbers, your e-mail address and a lot of other things the publisher would like to know about you.

In return for filling out this form and transmitting the information (usually via phone or the Internet), you get the the benefits of registration, including product update notices, offers and other assorted goodies. For his part, the publisher gets a lot of information about you, which he's likely to sell to the highest bidder, resulting in a barrage of junk mail, faxes and calls from telemarketers when you're sitting down to dinner.

Luckily, if you ignore registration messages often enough, they're likely to go away. But Microsoft is planning to up the ante in the registration game with the upcoming release of Office 2000 - which includes the word processor and spreadsheet that most of us use today. If you don't register the program after you've used it 50 times, it will stop working altogether. And if you don't like the idea of registering, tough luck. You're out whatever you paid for it.

Microsoft says its new ``Registration Wizard'' is being tested with other programs in Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. When Office 2000 ships this year, the test will be expanded to include academic versions of Office in the U.S. and Canada. Don't be surprised if it turns up in the retail versions of all Office products, including Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access.

John Duncan, an Office 2000 product manager, called the Registration Wizard ``one element of an overall effort to address the industrywide problem of piracy,'' by which he means the illegal copying of software.

Duncan and other Microsoft bigwigs are stumping the country, talking up the piracy issue, which they claim caused the loss of more than 600,000 jobs and $11.4 billion in revenue in 1997.

Outside of the software trade associations, it's hard to find anybody who takes the figures seriously. After all, 600,000 jobs is a number equal to the entire adult population of Delaware. And the $11.4 billion figure assumes that everyone who ever copied a program would have otherwise bought it at retail.

But there's no question that piracy is a problem for publishers, and no question that piracy is morally wrong. People who put time and effort into writing software deserve to be paid for it.

In any case, Microsoft's plan harks back to the early days of software copy protection, which disappeared in the early 1990s after mainstream computer publications campaigned against it and a cottage industry of companies that specialized in copy protection cracking programs made the practice unworkable.

To be fair, Microsoft's current copy protection scheme is neither as arrogant as earlier attempts by other companies - which made it almost impossible to back up critical programs - nor as intrusive as most of today's registration efforts. Here's how it works.

When you run the Registration Wizard, it asks you to type in the serial number from your Office program. Then it generates a code based on a hardware profile of your computer, transmits it to Microsoft, and you get back another code that unlocks the program. If you crash your hard disk, you can install Office again as long as you have the unlocking code.

You can register by e-mail, over the Internet, by fax, by phone, or by snail mail. Although Microsoft will ask for personal informaation (so you can get all those great benefits), you don't have to provide anything other than the product ID and the country from which you're registering. Of course, if you register by e-mail or snail mail, Microsoft will know who you are, but that's up to you.

Theoretically, once a program has been registered to a specific computer - or two specific computers, because Microsoft's license is good for an office PC and a laptop - no one else can register it. This means that illegal copies are only good for 50 uses before they expire. If you buy a new computer or upgrade an existing machine so that its profile is no longer recognizable, Microsoft says you can call up and re-register.

Microsoft argues that this will not inconvenience its customers, but quite frankly, I don't buy it. I have always opposed any protection scheme that can deprive me of the legitimate use of my software under any circumstances - and I can think of any number of scenarios where this could happen under the Office 2000 plan.

I also see another battle shaping up between Microsoft and hackers who will undoubtedly develop programs to keep the registration clock from expiring. In 1997, Microsoft successfully sued a 17-year-old who figured out how to keep the clock from expiring on a trial version of Office 97. But whether the company would prevail against software that merely gives a legitimate owner the right to use his purchase without registering is another matter entirely.

In any case, if you don't like this scheme you have an option - don't buy the program. Like most people, I only use a fraction of the features in the existing Office 97, and it's doubtful that Office 2000 will provide anything new that the average user really needs. The marketplace may well reject this copy protection plan, just as it has all the others.

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