The Problem with Software Registration

As a person who has spent a significant part of his professional life getting paid to write software, I believe it's important for me to regularly pay for software, too. Our programmer salaries don't come from magical money trees. They come from customers laying down cold, hard cash for the software we've built. That's why every month I try to put into action what I described in Support Your Favorite Small Software Vendor Day:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

I hate product activation with a passion. I’ve returned software in the past (tax software) because of it. I won’t buy anything that I know requires it. I donated $40 to so I can encrypt my laptop, so I’m not just a tightwad.

I’m surprised you didn’t make fun of Vista’s silly versions too.

I also worry about companies going out of business or deciding not to allow activations. For example, let’s say you reload your XP machine in a couple of years and Microsoft decides, nope, you can’t activate XP anymore, that license has expired. You’re totally screwed.

Hey Jeff: I’ve been a long time FileZilla user, but am now a WinSCP convert. It gives better drag-drop support from explorer, like SmartFTP.

It requires the same registration steps (with the optional 2nd one) that FileZilla provides.


I’m surprised you didn’t make fun of Vista’s silly versions too.

I’m not anti-registration, I’m anti-make-my-life-a-living-hell registration. I think there are ways to do it that can be almost seamless.

Let’s say you reload your XP machine in a couple of years and Microsoft decides, nope, you can’t activate XP anymore, that license has expired. You’re totally screwed.

  1. Do you really consider this a realistic scenario?

  2. Even in the unbelievably remote chance this did come to pass, wouldn’t there be umpteen million cracks and hacks available through a simple web search that would let you get around this?

It took me 8 steps to donate to FileZilla through PayPal. I like the software but I almost didn’t donate because of the ‘signing up for PayPal’ tax. Also, I now have 3 new e-mails from PayPal. I bet they aren’t the last, either… why isn’t there a non-profit org that centralizes donating via CC for open source software? We can probably reduce the rates and make donating an easy, open process. I look forward to that day.

I’m a TC (Total Commander) user (fulfills all my FTP needs and the FTP is just a small part of the whole thing). What’s nice about it is that there’s not “installation”. Well, yes, it does have an install.exe (or setup, can’t remember), but all that does it copy some files and setup a shortcut. Do you want to use it on a different computer? Just copy the c:\totalcmd folder and you’re good to go. You could put it on flash drive and run it like that for example. The license key is a file that stays in that folder, so as long as you backup that folder you’re good to go.

I’ll put in my vote for WinSCP as well… excellent client, and you can use a more secure transfer protocol as well.

I especially like the Send To menu option that lets you upload a file to a specific directory with just a couple of clicks.

I almost wrote this post 2 years ago. I simply stopped using it and now use FileZilla, which is free, not as pretty, but does the job.

lol karma
I bet it’s easier to steal that program than to register it properly. I vote with my wallet by keeping it closed.

apt-get install ftp

$40 for SmartFtp. $40 for Winzip. Multiply by all the small tools you need. I won’t even begin to get to get into real development tools like Visual Studio. Windows developers seem to be made of money. One of the reasons I got out of the Windows world a decade ago was the cash I was shelling out just to stay current.

I stopped using Filezilla about a year and a half ago when I discovered it suffered from a rare, but very serious multi-threading problem: sometimes it would swap the contents of files during an upload. That is, if you dumped FileA.txt and FileB.txt in the transfer queue, then at the end of the transfer, the server would have FileA.txt with FileB’s contents and FileB.txt with FileA’s contents. It really did make me think I was losing my mind. The author of Filezilla seemed to think it wasn’t his problem, which I personally find a smidge difficult to believe as I’ve never encountered it with any other client. (See bugs 911908, 1047055, 1480769, 1509196, and 1741088 on the SourceForge site.)

Absolutely agree. It kills me when companies make it difficult to pay them money. What could be more important to make easy?

It’s not out of the question that Microsoft could refuse to activate copies of XP some day. MSN Music has just decided not to allow activation on their DRM protected music anymore. You will have to break the DRM (and the law) if you ever want to buy a new computer or portable device.

  1. Do you really consider this a realistic scenario?

It is simple: For I have paid for it, I want to use it, legally.

I hate registering for products with a passion too, although I’m sure many developers are excited enough just to see some money go their way!

After searching for a new FTP client I decided to check out the Firefox extension FireFTP, where I came across the donate page. Donations to FireFTP go toward the developer who uses half of the money to help out orphans in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina, whilst the other half goes towards his family as he’s adopted a child from the orphanage.

Admittedly I’m not usually one to give much money away (being a student and all), but you’d have to be heartless to not feel touched by the generosity of some people.

Maximus, if you purchased WindowsXP as a full or OEM license, you purchased one license to activate Windows XP. Microsoft could no more legally refuse to activate lawful copies than they could use a license agreement to gain ownership of your firstborn child.

The license is probably tied to a particular computer, so if I reinstall the OS, or upgrade the hardware, that license might break.

I don’t believe that’s the case with SmartFTP, or at the least, it wasn’t the last time I paid the particular piper. Even most fairly high-end software doesn’t mess around with keys to that degree – Intel’s IPP series has been smart enough to realize the issue (and pleasantly provide software license files for years).

SmartFTP is a particularly good example of software that remains easier to use illegally than legally, though. I’ve given up on them due to some software issues with them and my setup, but when everyone else can figure out Google Checkout and a reasonable way to get multi-computer licenses running, it’s a bit irritating.

Let’s say you reload your XP machine in a couple of years and Microsoft decides, nope, you can’t activate XP anymore, that license has expired. You’re totally screwed.

  1. Do you really consider this a realistic scenario?

Yes, absolutely, especially now that Microsoft has decided they are already shutting down one restrictions management server [1]. If they can’t be bothered to keep that running, I definitely can foresee a time when they decide they don’t want to activate XP anymore. If you then use a crack to get around it, you’re no better off legally than a pirate and could (theoretically) get sued for using software you ‘own’.


Pretty much the standard scheme for Mac developers is like this:

  1. Download software (of which there is usually only one version, no “pro” vs. “home” nonsense)
  2. Use software, often with a caveat like a nagware screen, trial period, or feature limitations
  3. Visit the developer’s website (usually through a menu item like “Register…”) and give the developer your credit card number
  4. Receive a serial code – usually on the confirmation screen immediately after submitting your credit card number – that unlocks every copy of the software on any computer, anywhere, forever.

If I reformat my hard drive, I can generally find my SNs by searching my email, or, failing that, emailing the developer. There’s no fear that at some point my software will mysteriously stop being “valid.”

I think this “trust the customer” ethos derives from the mothership itself: this is the way Apple collects payments and delivers licenses. If Mac developers pulled the kind of crap I’ve had to endure on my Windows machines, the users would scream bloody murder; they just aren’t used to it. Yes, a few developers release “pro” or “enhanced” versions, but generally the transaction is bone simple: “to run our software without limitations you need to buy a magic number.”

Panic software has this down cold. I don’t even need to keep the emails with the serials … if I forget my serial number I can just send them my email address and they’ll email me back with ALL the serial numbers I’ve EVER purchased … even for out of date, expired software (which, who knows, I might still have running on an old machine)

The only software I’ve ever had to “validate” or “activate” on my Mac is from Adobe.

Unfortunately the pain of registration is a side-effect of getting users to actually pay for software. I had an application that started out as donationware, but after a year I switched it to shareware. What happened? It brought it more revenue in a week as shareware than it did in a year as donationware.

There is no step three!

Yeah, and in a couple years when Joe Hacker gets tired of working for free and decides he needs a job that actually pays the bills, there is no FileZilla either. Ah, but you gave him $36.95, you say? You think that’s going to put your mind at ease? Sucker. You and maybe three other people are the only ones who donated.

PS. There are about a bajillion commercial FTP products that are easier to purchase and install than the contraption mentioned in the article. And most of them do more that FTP, too. Picking the most convoluted example might have made a fun read, but it doesn’t represent the most typical experience.