Microsoft's one-PC limit isn't new in Office 2013

Microsoft's one-PC limit isn't new in Office 2013

Summary: Read your licence: the most popular version of Office 2010 could also only be used on a single PC...

TOPICS: Microsoft, Software

Microsoft is busy changing to a devices and services company. One of those changes is making the Office 365 subscriptions to the desktop Office 2013 software a better deal than buying a perpetual licence in a cardboard box (which, unless you're in a developing country with notoriously poor connectivity, contains only a product key card with a code on).

There's been a lot of discussion of the limitation that the retail (consumer rather than business) versions of Office 2013 can only be installed on one PC — not one at a time, but only one PC. If it crashes, you can reinstall Office — on that same computer. If the PC fails, you can't transfer the licence. A stringent new restriction pushing users to the Office 365 service, most commentators have suggested. ZDNet colleague Ed Bott takes a more thoughtful look at Microsoft's changing business model.

But as it happens, this limitation isn't new. "The Office 2013 software is licensed to one computer for the life of that computer and is non-transferable," a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed. But they also pointed out that "Office 2013 has the same licensing provisions around transferability as the equivalent Office 2010 package, which was the package purchased by most Office 2010 customers."

That was the key card version of Office 2010 Home and Student, and it could only be installed on one computer. The Software Licence Terms make this quite clear:


a. One Copy per Device. The software license is permanently assigned to the device on which the software is initially activated. That device is the "licensed device."

The question came up on Microsoft's community support site back in 2010 and the answer was clear; the key card version of Office 2010 Home and Student can only be used on the first PC you install it on.

Why the fuss now and not then? Probably because not many people noticed the restriction; who actually reads the licence? Plus, this time, there's the suspicion that Microsoft is pushing people to a more expensive way of buying Office. Certainly getting Office users to pay for the software every year would bring in plenty of money. If all billion Office users took the $99 annual Office 365 Home and Premium subscription, that would bring in almost $25 billion a quarter; putting them all on a $20 a month E3 plan would bring in twice as much revenue as Apple from the Office division alone.

The thing is, there have always been more expensive ways of buying Office that give you more rights, as well as more features than the cheapest option. With Office 2010, you could buy a retail version with the software on DVD and run it on a desktop and notebook at the same time, as well as transferring it to a new PC every 90 days. More people bought the key card version — not because they didn't care about moving it to a new PC, but because it was cheaper.

With Office 2013, you can buy the Office 365 Home Premium subscription and share Office with four other members of your family (or use it on four other PCs). In fact, you can stream Office onto a PC in a matter of minutes (even on a slow internet connection) and remotely deactivate it without going back to that PC, and do the same on the next PC you need to use. This means you can effectively use it on an unlimited numbers of PCs. You also get Skype minutes and extra SkyDrive storage, and a new version of Office whenever it comes out to sweeten the deal.

But, as has been the case for the last three years, if you want the very cheapest version of Office, you can't keep using it for year after year — unless you have an unusually long-lived PC.

It's a trade-off you have to make, and it may well cost Microsoft some sales from users refusing to upgrade from Office 2007 or earlier because of the limitation. It's just not actually a new trade-off.



I had several questions about running Office in a VM to avoid the transferability limitation. This would certainly break the spirit of the licence and the information about activation in the SLT for the keycard version of Office 2010 suggests it may not work any way.

4. MANDATORY ACTIVATION. Activation associates the use of the software with a specific device. During activation, the software will send information about the software and the device to Microsoft. This information includes the version, the license version, language and product key of the software, the Internet protocol address of the device, and information derived from the hardware configuration of the device.

(If you're looking at the SLT, make sure to read section 3, the key card licence, rather than section 1, which is the full retail product licence, or section 2 for OEM versions of Office 2010.)


Topics: Microsoft, Software

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • I have a 3 seat version of Office 2007 and Office 2010 with media

    I am not upgrading, probably never. It would be paying for a downgrade. Office 2010 is good enough.
    • Office 2010 is good

      But Office 2013 isn't bad at all. I like it more than 2010 because of how closely it is integrated with Skydrive and I use that a lot. But nothing can beat Office 2007? That Button in the top left was awesome.
      • 2007 was garbage

        I'm still happily on 2003.

        truth is besides some very minor features, office hardly gets upgraded anymore. once you get one, there's really no reason to ever upgrade. maybe in 20 years...
        • 2003 was garbage

          I am still happily on Office XP on NT 3.51 on my 80486 66MHz with a whopping 16MB RAM.

          Truth be told: there are some very minor worthwhile features - Windows and Office hardly ever get upgraded anymore. Once you get one, there's really no reason to ever upgrade. maybe in 20 years...
      • Terrible for what it took away

        Back when Microsoft first introduced desktop search, they boasted of how you could find both files and e-mails with a single search. Obviously, MS thought that was a useful features, and they were right. I But as many surprised purchasers of Office 2013 have discovered, even though emails continue to be indexed for searching within Outlook, Windows search will no longer return emails that meet the search parameters. Also, anyone who uses Outlook for both a Live email account (Hotmail, etc.) and another email account will discover that you can no longer move an email from another account into a Live or Hotmail folder. MS says this is due to a limitation of EAS. In case you don't thing anyone cares about those features, Google will help you discover many unhappy purchasers of Office 2013 who were dismayed to find they'd been removed. With really not much of interest added.
        • Re: Terrible for what it took away

          This was my experience exactly. I quickly "downgraded" to Windows 7 and Outlook 2010, and restored my universal search from the Windows Start button.
  • A reality check

    Customers probably don't remember that when they brought out Office 2003 Student and Teacher Edition (for 3 PC's), the MSRP was upwards of $199. Originally, 2007 Home and Student was $179 and the 1 PC OEM version (which you couldn't buy at retail, unlike with 2010) was $149, so the prices have actually come down quite a bit.

    I remember when OEM versions of Pro were selling for $699 too.

    None of the OEM versions were transferable either.
    • Re: Reality Check

      And that's exactly the main point of the complaints :

      Office Version Total Cost for 3 PC's Total Cost for 5 PC's
      avg. 4 year of use avg. 4 year use
      Office 2003 199.00 398.00
      Office 2007 179.00 358.00
      Office 2010* 129.00/149.00? 258.00
      *(Not sure if that low, but covered 3 PCs)

      Office 2013 390.00 650.00
      Office 2013 (rent) 396.00 396.00

      That's more than double the cost for the rent option, in other words they priced it to high
      (nobody sees -cares- about the Skype/skydrive extras)

      Also, really, how many families does anyone know that actually have FIVE pc's/laptops, where the subscription bearly starts to make sense ?
      • Actually, no.

        First off, you are saying "4 years of use" which makes absolutely no sense, since a new version has been launched every 3 years.

        Secondly, Office 2010 launched at $159 for 3 PC's, but was reduced over time. The 1 PC version launched at the same price as 2013 but has been reduced over the years down to as low as $99, and one can expect the same of 2013.

        Your math is bad because when you figure you get the same capabilities as Office Professional (which sells on 1 PC for $519) but you get 3 years which account for $297, but are getting 5 installs, it's a bargain (and that isn't even taking into account the SkyDrive and Skype bonuses).

        Also, nobody seems to be talking about the lack of adjustment based on price inflation either.
  • Avoid

    While many ZDNET commentators like to tie themselves up in words about EULA's none has the wit, nerve or ethics to write up the new licensing rules for what they are: MSFT's lock-in play and price hike for their move to the cloud. I won't be joining them and I hope Office 2013 is a disaster for the company.

    1. The 3 PC Home and Student version with device transfer rights was a fair deal. If your family needs 5 devices then buy two off.

    2. The 1 PC non transferable download at increased price is terrible. Don't explain all the various EULA's to me ... it's a shockingly bad turn of events.
    I asked MSFT UK specifically about the 2013 EULA when contemplating buying the Office 2010 special offer but they would not say a word (get it?). I see why now and I find MSFT devious in the extreme.

    3. Office is a mature, stable product: you have to be an expert user to exploit the new features, most of which are way beyond typical consumers. That's the problem with subscriptions ... the purchaser is at the mercy of the supplier for new features.

    4. It's not the subscription model per se that's wrong - it's the PRICE. Its shockingly bad. Can anyone on ZDNET tell why Office 2013 is a must have?

    5. MSFT is trying for a lock-in to all their products with the new subscription model. Most people cannot use all the products and would be better off with a subset. It's the same with ADOBE: how many people are expert in PHOTOSHOP, ILLUSTRATOR, INDESIGN, ... and ... most are good at one. Mary Jo Foley is great with Notepad I understand.

    6. If I read 'carrot and stick' or equivalent one more time ... I will beat the perpetrator with all the sticks and he can defend himself with the carrots!

    7. This is MSFT's play for the cloud future: an increasing revenue stream with diminishing customer returns. I suggest everyone boycott it. If the cloud is so great and efficient costs should be coming down!!!
    • It's really only a must have

      if you want the skype integration and extra storage, actually have 5 pcs to install it on (at that point it's really not a bad deal), or if you have a Windows tablet. I've been using it on my smart pc and it's actually a lot easier to use on a touch screen on tablet mode. That's why is was worth it to me.
      Sam Wagner
  • I have Office 2010 Professional retail full version

    I have moved it from multiple machines without issue. I think Microsoft should have kept that same policy around for Office 2013 retail copies. Different from the key card.
  • bait and switch

    Or apples and oranges.

    Perhaps the key card for 2010 Home & Student worked this way, but that was a noncommercial license. There were other 2010 options which weren't tied permanently to the single installed device. Where are 2013 options with equivalent terms?

    If people only want the cheapest option, and Office 365 is cheapest, then why change the license terms of the retail options? [Bott's piece may be more thoughtful, but doesn't mean he's correct. The pre-Galileo astronomers who believed earth was the center of the universe were thoughtful AND completely wrong.]

    There used to be OEM versions of Office preinstalled on new PCs and permanently tied to those PC (except in Germany, which made such provisions legally unenforceable), but the OEM versions were significantly cheaper than the retail versions.
  • On the subject of the Office 2013 EULA

    What does this clause mean?

    If you install the software covered by this agreement as an upgrade or conversion to your existing software, then the upgrade or conversion replaces the original software that you are upgrading or converting from. You do not retain any rights to the original software after you have upgraded and you may not continue to use it or transfer it in any way.

    MSFT UK told me that I could upgrade one of my 3 Office 2010 devices to 2013 and leave the other 2 intact. This clause suggests otherwise.

    And what about ...

    "You may order or download a backup copy of the software from"

    No such site.

    I wonder whether installing in a VM will allow Office to be 'moved'.

    "This license allows you to install only one copy of the software for use on one computer, whether that computer is physical or virtual."

    In any event I intend to have one license accessible by RDP, for the few cases I do need a 2013 feature.
    • EULA

      "MSFT UK told me that I could upgrade one of my 3 Office 2010 devices to 2013 and leave the other 2 intact. This clause suggests otherwise."

      What MSFT told you makes sense, since you are upgrading just one device. The other two still be covered by the Office 2010 EULA.
    • remote is allowed

      e. Remote Access. The single primary user of the licensed device may
      access and use the software installed on the licensed device remotely
      from any other device. You may allow others to access the software to
      provide you with support services. You do not need additional licenses
      for this access. No other person may use the software under the same
      license at the same time for any other purpose.

      (p18 of the SLT)

      running it in a VM isn't likely to help due to the activation method (page 20 of the SLT):
      4. MANDATORY ACTIVATION. Activation associates the use of the software
      with a specific device. During activation, the software will send
      information about the software and the device to Microsoft. This
      information includes the version, the license version, language and
      product key of the software, the Internet protocol address of the device,
      and information derived from the hardware configuration of the device.
      For more information, see

      That would suggest that the VM wouldn't be particularly mobile. It would certainly break the spirit of the licence agreement as well, so hard to say whether your support call when it didn't work would be productive.
      • Journalism

        I see you use the selective answering method - only fielding the easy questions and avoiding the important tricky ones.

        MSFT are switching to the APPL model of device and cloud lockdown, with accompanying high revenues and poor customer value. The same model has also been used traditionally by the music industry. Prices should be coming down! Unfortunately Bott, Foley, Branscombe, Thurrott, ... don't seem to see what they are walking in to, despite their long experience in the industry.

        Instead of warning readers about the impending watershed you will let them sign their life away by saying things like 'hey this crap license (which few wanted) already existed, so lets all avoid that crap license and move to this even crappier lock-in option over here".

        - Windows 8 lock in via UEFI boot
        - expensive RT and PRO tablets (more expensive than APPL - Jeez!!)
        - Office 2013 subscription and device or cloud lock-in at higher cost

        Only Peter Bright over at Ars Technica gets it.

        I'm not sorry about the unprofessional language ... but when people sell me down the river they get ... the finger.
        • I avoid conspiracy theories

          for example, UEFI doesn't lock you to Windows 8. Secure boot doesn't even lock you to Windows 8, as you can turn it off in the BIOS interface and load an OS that doesn't support secure boot.

          the rest is a question of market choices; if you don't like what Microsoft is selling, pick something else.
    • Backup page works for me
      works fine for me (now anyway, yes it may have been fixed after you tried). It redirects to a different URL to a page titled: "Get a backup of Office 2010" with clear instructions on downloading or getting a disc of a backup if you enter your key.
      (and has a link to download a backup of 2007 if you have that)
  • If you are only suspicious along the lines of ...

    "Plus, this time, there's the suspicion that Microsoft is pushing people to a more expensive way of buying Office."

    ... then you are a fool.