The following text is copyright 2003 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.


Mission accomplished?


By Scott Bradner


It would have taken a concentrated effort for Intuit to have done a better job of messing up their public image than they did when introducing an activation requirement for the Windows version of TurboTax. From the point of deciding to require such a feature and then at every step of the way they seemed to pick the path that would maximize user suspicions and maximize  the damage to Intuit's image and product sales.  Its almost like whoever in Intuit made these decisions was a mole in the secret pay of H&R Block, who sells TaxCut, the main competitor to TurboTax.


In the early days of personal computers many software companies tried various forms of copy protection to "protect their IPR" (as a spokesman for Intuit said they were trying to do).  The schemes caused widespread user revolt and within a few years almost all of the schemes had been discarded in favor of unprotected versions.  Intuit seems to have studied everything that the customers found to be wrong with the old protection techniques and carefully recreated them in TurboTax.  System backups are hard if not impossible, recovery from a disk replacement is problematic, moving the software to a new or different machine is blocked, and there is no assurance that you will be able to use the software in 5 years.  Then Intuit added a few other touches, they did not make it clear to their users what was happening, they used a third party software that was widely thought to be spyware and, they set it up so that the third party software would run in the user's machine forever, even if TurboTax was uninstalled.  Good work indeed if you worked for H&R Block, but not so good if your loyalty was to Intuit.


But just what problem were they trying to solve?  Remember that this is cheap software (starting at $19.95) with a built in forcing function of the US Congress that means that the purchase of new software is required every year.  Was there so much piracy of the $19.95 version that it is worth it to make life significantly harder for all of the users?  I would expect that most of the piracy that did exist was not by individuals who gave copies of the CD to their officemates, it was by professional software pirates. So making usage harder for the average user is the equivalent of punishing New York City because of a few crooks.  Maybe Intuit thinks this is a reasonable balance.  I would predict that if they keep thinking this way H&R Block will be the beneficiary and Intuit will have less to worry about because they will be selling quite a bit less software.


Software piracy is a real problem that has to be addressed but it should be addressed where the real threat is and that is generally not with individuals buying cheap software.  I do expect that there are things that can be done technically to help here but lets aim at the high value targets and not penalize everyone.  That is unless you secretly work for the competition.


disclaimer:  Intuit treating all of its customers like potential crooks might increase demand at the Harvard law School but the school did not express an opinion on the value of moles, the above observation is my own.