Taxing for the user

If you plan to install Intuit's latest version of TurboTax, read these product activation horror stories first

Software publishers considering product activation, beware. Your customers aren’t going to take this lying down anymore.

That’s the lesson to be learned from readers' responses to my column about the product activation in Intuit’s latest version of TurboTax (see "Don’t pass this along"). In spite of all the years I’ve been hearing reader rants about various forms of registerware, I was frankly stunned by the vehemence and the volume of condemnations of Intuit. Amid the calls for boycott, vows to switch to other programs such as TaxAct or TaxCut, and horror stories of bugs attributed to the product activation software, one central fact stood out clearly: Readers hate the idea of being dependent on the software vendor’s whim when a hardware change requires them to reactivate.

“I hate product activation because I am constantly upgrading my machines, and I refuse to be held hostage to the software companies by having to reactivate all my apps every time I reconfigure my machines,” one reader wrote. “Can you imagine the enormous waste of my time if every one of the over 40 applications I have loaded on my machine required reactivation every time I moved them to another machine? How can you prove to them that you are not just copying it to another machine in addition to the currently installed machine? If, as they keep claiming in the press, they will ‘believe’ you and give you the new codes, then what is the point of the exercise in the first place except to alienate their customer base which, in my case, they have thoroughly accomplished?”

TurboTax customers continued to report difficulties when trying to reactivate their software. “I take offense at the way I was treated by this company,” says a reader who had to reactivate several times because of a bad hard drive. “After enduring a heavy third degree and some very insulting comments, a tech support person walked me through getting the software running again. He did not say it in so many words, but insinuated that I best not call again with this problem. … They automatically assumed I was a thief and was trying to install the licensed software on multiple machines. They try to make you believe that their software is intelligent enough to make that determination, and I can assure you from my experience it is not.”

A large number of longtime TurboTax users were offended by what they saw as a breach of faith. “Although I have used TurboTax since it was originally introduced," a reader wrote, "I will not be buying it this year, and probably will never purchase it again. Respect for, and support of, customer needs must come first in a product such as this. The obvious failure to recognize that in this case suggests that the customer-be-damned, we-only-care-about-profits attitude probably extends throughout the program and Intuit's product line.”

Intuit’s assurances that the product activation software it’s using is not spyware did not convince all. “I am a firm believer in not using pirate software and always purchase my own [copy of TurboTax],” one reader wrote. “Now I get punished with some kind of unwanted embedded software combined with the software that I have used for years. And, [Intuit says] they are not compiling personal information from their purchasers with this little extra additive. Yeah, right. Then why is it there? What if they change their minds tomorrow?”

The fact that the activation remains active even when TurboTax is not in use was particularly galling to some. “I’m offended and outraged by their casual assumption that they can install applications[that remain active] after their software has been removed,” wrote another longtime customer. “Why do I have to care if the product activation software works correctly or not ? I don't want it. I've dutifully bought TurboTax every year and registered it. I've been an honest user. But this scheme of theirs assumes that I'm a criminal and I need to be protected from myself. Nope, not gonna do it.”

Intuit’s decision to use product activation to prevent users from transferring the program to another computer struck many readers as a violation of their rights. “There must be an anti-piracy scheme that does not punish the honest to the extent Intuit's solution does,” another reader wrote. “Surely fair use should at least allow the purchaser of the software to run the software on multiple personal computers as long as it is not running simultaneously on two or more computers, i.e., two persons aren't using the software at the same time.”

The question of what fair use should and should not allow was one that elicited quite a variety of opinions, and we’ll return to that topic next week. But what everyone seemed to agree on was that software publishers are repeating the mistakes of two decades ago, when copy protection drove users to rebel. “A pox on all product-activation and copy-protection schemes!” wrote another reader. “The software and entertainment industries have come together to attempt to repeal virtually all of the fair use doctrine that has been a part of copyright law for over a century. For the record, I abide by software licensing agreements and pay for all of the [nonfree] software I use. Being a software developer myself, I feel honor-bound to do so. Ironically, Microsoft's takeover of the office software market from Lotus was fueled in part by Microsoft's lack of copy protection at a time when Lotus' schemes were driving customers mad.”

It is indeed ironic, given that not just a few TurboTax customers now blame Microsoft and its XP product activation for leading Intuit to believe TurboTax customers would accept this. But Intuit, despite its dominant marketshare in tax software, is finding out it’s not Microsoft. Software publishers take note: Unless you happen to be a convicted but unpunished monopolist, embrace product activation at your peril.