Symantec embraces product activation

Software giant Symantec Corp. 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 nonfunctioning 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.

How it Works

After you purchase and install a new Symantec application, you have up to 15 days to complete product activation, says Del Smith, Symantec product manager. The company automates the activation process with a wizard, he says.

First, you plug in your software key (printed on the CD sleeve). From there, the wizard checks your hardware configuration, including your hard drive serial number and configuration, plus network and video cards, Smith says.

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 you to call an automated phone service to complete activation. The entire process should take just a few minutes, he says.

Later, if you upgrade your PC with new hardware or you move the software to a new PC, you must reactivate the program, he says. However, Symantec builds 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 says. 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 says.

"We've had more than 250,000 users complete product activation so far, and virtually no complaints," Smith says.

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.

Rampant Piracy Cited

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 organizations create and distribute more than 3.6 million illegal copies of its software in a single year.

These products also pose a risk to unsuspecting buyers, Smith says. 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 says.

Of course, there's also the matter of piracy's effect on Symantec's revenues. Smith declines to estimate how much money the company loses to counterfeiting each year, but clearly it is substantial.

All of these factors add up to a perfectly legitimate reason to implement product activation, says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group. However, that doesn't mean customers will like it. Both Microsoft Corp. (with Windows XP) and Intuit Inc. (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.

Another Risk

Symantec has one advantage when it comes to product activation, Enderle says. Most of its products already dial into the company after installation, to get product updates.

"For some offerings, you are already effectively in a product activation process," he says. "On the other hand, the words 'product activation' have always been received negatively." Even if Symantec's technology works, the company risks driving away customers annoyed by the very premise of product activation.

And it differentiates the company in a negative way from competitors that don't use product activation, Enderle points out. Symantec's biggest obstacle will be winning over the tech savvy buyers who affect the buying decisions of others. Users who don't like product activation may rally to switch just to avoid it.

Symantec executives maintain their technology won't offend customers.

"We recognize that some users are concerned about this, but we have designed a great deal of flexibility into the product activation," Smith says. "We have designed the solution to be friendly and unobtrusive so that product activation will feel like a natural part of installation."

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