Nobody likes product activation, but it is used increasingly by software vendors in search of more effective anti-piracy measures. Microsoft is the most prominent example, but many smaller vendors do the same. Codegear, for instance, use activation for Delphi. Even if you have a valid registration key, you cannot use the product until it has checked in with Codegear’s license server.
Last month Appforge went bust. The company made a development tool called CrossFire, which lets you code in Visual Basic or C# but cross-compile for numerous platforms including Palm, Nokia’s Series 60 and Series 80, Blackberry and Windows Mobile. A useful tool, but AppForge has an activation system that applies both to the development tool and in many cases to the client runtimes.
The AppForge license server is now offline. Result: developers with CrossFire applications and fully paid-up licenses can no longer deploy their products.
AppForge has been acquired by Oracle, but apparently Oracle has no interest in continuing the CrossFire product. Here’s what Oracle says:
Please note that Oracle’s acquisition of AppForge’s intellectual property did not include the purchase of the company as a whole, or the purchase of other AppForge assets including its customer contracts. Accordingly, Oracle does not plan to sell or provide support for former AppForge products going forward.
Former customers are fighting back. There is talk of a competition to crack AppForge activation: money for the prize is being put on the table.
What about Oracle? Is it really so difficult to resurrect the AppForge license server? Ending all support and development for a product is bad enough; robbing existing users of the right to use it seems extreme.
There may yet be a happy ending. But for now, this really is the nightmare scenario that opponents of the product activation concept feared. No, I don’t think something similar could happen to Windows and Office; but clearly there are real risks when using products from smaller vendors.
A solution is to use some form of escrow where unlocked versions of the software are guaranteed to be made available in the event that the original company can no longer offer activation services. The AppForge saga suggests that customers should insist on this or some alternative protection before committing to activation-protected software.