Licensing lessons PC software vendors can learn from Apple's App Store

Licensing lessons PC software vendors can learn from Apple's App Store

Summary: If you're a developer, do us all a favor, willya? Follow David's advice and try to make the process easier. It'll save us all a lot of time.


When I bought my iPad 3 from Apple last March and fired it up, I found that all the apps I'd purchased for the first iPad were almost immediately available to me.

When I bought my iPhone 4S last December and fired it up, I found that all the apps I'd purchased for my iPhone 3G were also immediately available to me.


I may complain a lot about Apple and its restrictive App Store policies, but one thing it gets right -- really right -- is license management for the use of software.

PC software vendors could learn a lot from this.

Part of the reason I'm looking forward to the Windows app store -- assuming it's implemented properly -- is avoiding some of the problems I've recently had with Windows software purchases.

See Also: Consumer-friendly products suck and post-PC is a fantasy

When you do development (and especially when you're trying to get the job done as quickly as possible), you tend to buy a lot of useful software tools. It makes great sense to spend $30 if it'll save you a day or two of work.

I've bought a whole bunch of these tools. They tend to be what I'll call "fringe" tools, tools that aren't used by mainstream users. As a result, they're usually produced by small vendors. This means that the licensing process differs from vendor to vendor.

It's always a crap-shoot whether or not you can make the software run.

Let me give you an example. I recently bought an image management tool for about $30. It worked great. But about two months ago, I decided to upgrade my laptop because I needed a lot more RAM to run a bunch of virtual machines concurrently (a requirement for my development testing).

When you switch Windows machines, one of the hassles is that you often have to go through every piece of software and decommission each one, so you can re-register on the new machine.

Windows software falls into three main licensing categories:

  1. Software where you need a serial number, but you can easily do a second install using the same serial number
  2. Software where you need a serial number, but you can decommission the serial number and then install the software on another machine, and
  3. Software that just allows that serial number to be used one or two times, period.

The image management product fit the third category. Adobe often uses the second category. In any case, I installed the image manager on the first laptop, and then -- because I didn't see any way to deregister the software -- I just moved on to the new, replacement laptop.

This weekend, I needed to use that software. So I tried to reinstall it. As it turns out, the serial number I'd used was now retired (because I used it on the earlier laptop). I wound up having to buy a second copy of the software because I needed it to do work over the weekend.

I did contact the vendor on Monday, and he did offer to make good on the second purchase, but that took both his time and mine.

It gets worse. My new laptop is acting up, and I may have to return it for warranty replacement (a process I dread). If that's the case, I may have to once again go back to the image management software vendor and beg for another serial number.

Obviously, if I send the laptop back, I'll try to make perfect image copies of the drives, but my experience has been that nothing's perfect and restored images sometimes don't restore well enough to work without hassle.

The licensing issue I'm discussing isn't just about this one image management product. I've had minor licensing hassles for many PC software products, all for similar reasons.

For years, I've just gone along with it, sucking it up because that's how software works. But after experiencing the smoothness of the iPad app upgrade, I'm thinking it's time for PC software vendors to change their ways.

Besides, making licensing a hassle for paying customers won't prevent piracy.

Pirates have entire ISO images available for download, they have lists and lists of serial numbers, and for many software products, they've actually reverse-engineered the serial number algorithms and have produced keygens -- software that can automatically generate a license key.

So if someone's determined to pirate PC software, it's going to happen. There's almost nothing you can do that'll stop it. And no, dongles don't work either. There are enormous libraries of patches that simply go in and route around the dongle verification code.

The bottom line is license hassles don't prevent piracy. They just make legitimate purchasers like me cranky, and they waste not only the time of customers, but of the vendors and their support teams as well.

That's the lesson PC software vendors can take from the Apple App Store: make licensing simple.

Ideally, license to a user, not a machine. Make it easy and simple to move from machine-to-machine, because a Windows reinstall shouldn't necessitate a whole series of support emails just to get software working again. And if you must use a serial number, make it clear and easy to deregister a copy from one machine and assign it to another.

One final hint: people sometimes can't deregister software from the machine it runs on, especially if that machine has died. So make sure you have a way to deregister a machine from the Web.

Or, you could see if the Windows 8 app store works for you. I'm seriously considering taking advantage of the Windows 8 $39 upgrade price for all my PCs, just so I can move to an app store model for as many products as possible. That and the new storage pooling architecture of Windows 8 makes me tingle all over, but we'll talk about that (the storage pooling, not the tingling) in another article.

Sadly, the fringe products I need for development probably will never be in the app store, so I'll probably have licensing hassles for as long as I use Windows. Since I'm probably always going to need a real computer for real work, and I probably won't just be able to rely on a toy tablet like the iPad, licensing and upgrading will always be something of a pain.

If you're a developer, do me a favor, willya? Follow some of my advice and try to make it easier. It'll save us both time.

Topics: Windows, Apple, Apps, Software, Software Development, SMBs


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • My gawd

    Real and toy. Seriously, for you maybe but there's enough people using the things for "real" work. Just not your idea of it. That you need fringe products does not negate real work done on tablets or any other computer. It does not make other work less real because you have special needs. It does not make one computer any more ”real" than any other.

    Toy. My gawd. Take a day off. Put your feet up. Give it a rest.
    • Appreciated his opinion until he called tablets toys

      I lost all respect for him, at that point. He's just another insecure fool who is frightened by change. Just because a device isn't a good fit for your specific needs, that doesn't make it a "toy." Tablets are getting work done every day for millions of us. Why pollute an otherwise valid argument with such drivel?
      • yes

        There's content management, project management, email, document creation, etc. that fit into most people's idea of "real" work. Our server goes ssh's into them all the time from the iPad.
        But apparently that's not enough until someone can whip out that spreadsheet and crunch those numbers. Then and only then will "real" work get done.

        "Toy" is the ultimate soundbite. No other word necessary. No substance required. Say "toy" and iPad and you've somehow made a valid argument.

        This bloke is incapable of making a point without belittling someone or something. He has a long history of it. It's a shame because otherwise he would be an ok tech writer. Being unable to shake that junior high mentality serves no one.

        And even without work, I think carrying around my library, music, magazine subscriptions, guitar tuner, the web, email, video conferencing, lite game machine, calendar, bike repair manual, movies, camera, video recorder, audio recorder, some cool apps (recently go into astronomy)... ah hail, the list is long... in something I can throw in my bike pannier and always have handy is kinda nice.

        I sure hope these people that think it's a "toy" aren't going to put all this play stuff on their new Surfaces, those "real" work tablets that'll be out soon. They'll be deep into number crunching.
      • It was a toy

        When the iPad came out, even though some people managed to do real work on it.

        It's not a toy when windoze does it. Their fanbuis do a complete about-face when their own precious corporation is involved.
        Cylon Centurion
  • Windows 8

    With Windows 8, there's no need to worry about licensing. When you move to a new machine, login with your Windows account, and your apps are available. However, legacy (desktop) apps will continue to work in the same manner. No different on Mac OSX.
    General C#
  • Good article

    I agree. So much nicer to have the license follow the user. Same holds for the Google Play store and Amazon Market. Every time I buy a new Android device or factory restore an existing device, it's nice to know that all my apps are sitting in the cloud ready to be installed as part of the set-up process. Sometimes it's even a little too easy: when I first bought and set up my ASUS Tranformer I discovered at one point that every App I'd bought for my HTC Evo and HTC Flyer tablets started downloading and installing AUTOMATICALLY! LOL. I have no idea what check box I clicked, because I've since factory restored my Transformer and didn't have that happen. Even more amazing was turning on the WiFi hotspot on my phone and discovering a moment later that my Transformer had paired without me even entering the password. So I open up WiFi preferences and see entries for every WiFi device I'd ever connected to with my HTC Flyer! Wow! It imported that, too?

    All in all, there are some cool advantages to this new model of software distibution/cluod based licensing and configuration.
  • I applaud the developer that helped you

    I had a similar issue not too long ago. Last year, I'd bought the Sony Imagination Studio - their "home level" bundle with Acid, Sound Forge, Vegas, and DVD Architect. As much as I hate Sony, this group of tools came from the minds at Sonic Foundry, and Sony seems to have done a good job at not completely cooking the golden I spent $125 on the suite.

    Since then, I bought a new laptop, which itself needed to have the mobo replaced. Keep in mind that unlike everyone else whose activation methods only tie a serial number to a hardware hash, Sony requires compulsory registration. Now we ALL know that Sony keeps personal information on the most secure, hacker-resistant servers in the industry, so I had no qualms whatsoever with providing personal information to them (/sarcasm). I did anyway, but my machine failed the third activation attempt. Ableton, Microsoft, Nero, and Adobe have given me NO grief with getting activation extensions, but when I called Sony for one, I got a "too bad, so sad, you'll have to buy another copy" line. It was at that point that I headed to the shady side of the internet for an activation crack.

    I feel NO qualms about relying on TeH eViL pIrAtE$!!!!11 to get software that I have paid for to work. I'm using the exact same versions as if Sony had extended my activations. My money hasn't suddenly stopped existing in the bank since the software stopped working, I feel that working copies of the software isn't an unreasonable expectation.

    • Your story is not uncommon

      @Voyager, sadly your story is not uncommon. I used to compose using Acid (the tool, not the chemical) and it was a fine product. But many companies somehow don't keep the long view in mind. It is a little dicey to do what you did, but it's also what Sony is competing with.

      I often think that vendors could spend a lot less on lawyers and lawsuits if they'd only be more practically reasonable. Vendors also seem to forget that it's much harder to get new customers than keep old ones, and so a few extra steps to keep an otherwise happy, loyal customer can go a long way to a long-term relationship.

      One of the issues here is that some vendors empower their customer service employees to make decisions, while others don't. Usually when it's a small vendor, it's the developer himself (or herself) making a support decision. But with a call center, those operators are rarely given the right to make things right on their own.

      I can't remember the name of the company offhand, but one now-huge company used to have a policy that they'd support whatever activity any (ANY!) employee needed to do to make things right for customers. They were small then, and large now. I'm guessing that policy is gone, but it was a big part of what helped them initially succeed.

      Good luck!
      David Gewirtz
      • And that's the sad part

        Thanks for the reply, David.

        What particularly irked me with the Sony suite is the fact that they have my personal information and the serial numbers I was attempting to have activations extended upon, and I verified that all of the details were accurate, yet they still refused to grant me additional activations.

        Now I know my way around the shady side of the internet enough to avoid virus-laden keygens and password protected RAR archives...but I *chose* to purchase software from Sony even though I could have easily gotten it without paying. I felt it the right thing to do that I buy the software instead of pirating it, but it's quite pathetic when that degree of integrity is only valued by the company on one side of the equation - I've got Sony distributed DVDs with that "you wouldn't steal a car..." trailer and rootkit laden CDs...but then when it comes time to reciprocate, Sony doesn't seem cool with me expecting them to not steal my money.

        I could understand if I'd called eight times in a year or something as irregular as that, but it was the first time I'd asked, and I provided the receipt upon their request. I spent more time on the phone begging for activations than I did finding the activation crack.

        I'm uncertain which company you're talking about that gave their employees the mandate of "help the customer, at any cost". I worked retail for a number of years, and I know that people will game the system and take advantage of those kinds of things. Still, whatever company that was that put customer support above all else is one that I definitely want to do business with. It's why I own an Origin PC. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Sony would be the company to so religiously follow the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition (

        • I have been saying this for years: The hackers give better service!

          Much better!
  • Oh, pen source, I love you

    Licensing hassles are a BIG reason I prefer open source -- and preferably free -- software. I'm sitting at my main desktop right now, and the only pay-for proprietary software on it is Sony Vegas and some associated applications from New Blue. Everything else, no-hassle open source software. And Sony has never hassled me over commissioning a new computer. Not once.
    • Yep

      I've been working on completely switching to open source for this reason, too. I hate entering and managing a slew of way-too-long serial numbers. It truly is a punishment to the legitimate buyers, and I feel like they don't trust me. I've lost my Photoshop serial number AND DISC many times. I had to re-install one $200 program by copying over the folder from the Program Files folder of another machine because I lost 2 backups of the installer(thankfully that worked). Meanwhile, I'm getting used to "just re-download it" for my other programs.
      Garrett Williams
  • Agreed

    "I may complain a lot about Apple and its restrictive App Store policies, but one thing it gets right -- really right -- is license management for the use of software."

    Agreed. Had an iPod touch, got an iPhone - software purchases worked fine. Just needed to re-download.

    "one of the hassles is that you often have to go through every piece of software and decommission each one"

    If they allow you too, heh. Sometimes, you may end up in legal grey areas or with software that doesn't function at all due to their DRM :(.

    "Pirates have entire ISO images available for download, they have lists and lists of serial numbers, and for many software products, they've actually reverse-engineered the serial number algorithms and have produced keygens -- software that can automatically generate a license key."

    Yup, yup, and yup. Pirates don't suffer from this problem, because they know ways around it. Legit customers do.

    "Ideally, license to a user, not a machine."

    Yup. And hopefully Windows 8 will do exactly that, just as iOS and Steam have been doing all along.
    • Win8 already doing that

      In Windows 8 licenses are tied to Microsoft Account (a user), not Machine.

      Corporate account like SA have been on CAL all along, which doesn't care about how you got the Image (ISO) from but activations...
  • Or ... release as FOSS

    Just to cover the option space ... license mgmt of FOSS products is generally quite a bit easier, asymptotically sloping down to "0 effort".

    I know, i know, different business model. But mentioning it for completeness.
  • License to an owner, not a device.

    Apple definitely got application licensing right in iOS. Hopefully, the Windows application store will follow the same scheme. I would further like to see music and movie licensing move to this method. Buy it once, and it automatically appears on all of your devices. There should be a way to register your DVD/BD collection so that you have access to it on any of your connected devices. Ultraviolet is a sad attempt. I buy BD to have full HD resolution and sound. Hopefully, the RIAA and MPAA are paying attention to the proliferation of app stores on devices. They need to do the same thing with media.
    • This isn't an automobile

      A license to an owner implies permission. A license to a device implies commodity.

      I for one, never fill in personal details when I enter a license key. It's none of Apple's or Windows' business.
      Cylon Centurion
    • Well . . .

      "I would further like to see music and movie licensing move to this method."

      Well, that's actually the way iTunes works currently. I can re-download any content I've bought in the iTunes store.

      "There should be a way to register your DVD/BD collection so that you have access to it on any of your connected devices."

      You can do that for music, via iTunes Match.

      And yeah, hoping that Microsoft does something similar.
  • How to deauthorize Windows

    Click Start, type: cmd
    Right click cmd
    Click Run as administrator
    At the command prompt, type:
    slmgr.vbs -upk
    Hit Enter

    Your license will be set to trial state.
    You are now free to transfer to another computer.
    It would be good though if you just open system properties and click deactivate.
  • Passbook Spotted in the Wild

    I hated putting passbook last on my iphone screen too, so I made an integration with StickyStreet's loyalty platform for businesses. Everyone who reads this can add a demo passbook pass to their iphone by going to on their mobile browser to register yourself. It's pretty cool, and a great marketing tool for businesses. Let me know your thoughts, Zdnet community.
    David Bixler