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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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