Photoshop Activation: Annoyance or Roadblock

Photoshop CS (aka Photoshop 8) features activation as a new anti-piracy measure. Initially only on the Windows version, it will be placed on the Mac version once Adobe can finish implementing it.

Activation and how it works

Windows XP users and eBook readers are already familiar with activation. It is a normally fairly simple process where your computer contacts the vendor over the internet (or you can do it by phone) and registers your serial number in a database along with a special 'activation code' which is unique to the combination of hardware on your machine.

So far so good, but there are a couple annoying aspects to this. First, if you need to replace your hard drive or re-install your system, you'll need to re-activate. If you have forgotten to first "de-activate" your machine (or more likely were unable to since it crashed) then you may not be able to re-activate without discussing the situation with Adobe and getting them to allow an additional activation. If that sounds a little like Big Brother, perhaps it is. Second, if you are in the habit of treating your software license as being "per user" instead of per machine, and installing Photoshop on multiple machines, this may impact your ability to use the software. We'll talk about that next.

What does this mean to you, and should it keep you from upgrading?

First, Adobe currently limits its license grant to you, it just does not enforce the limits in software. For PS7, for example, a single-user license allows the user to have the software on one main machine and one portable machine, as long as they are the only user and they don't use both copies at once. But many creative pros have more than two machines, particularly given how often machines are either crashed, or infected, or unavailable while the latest OS patch from Microsoft is being installed.

As of PS8 that won't work any more. Adobe will allow 2 activations per serial number per 6-month period--or at least that is their initial plan. This allows some room for migrating an installation to a new machine over time, but does not allow you to have three machines active at once. For those with a home, studio, and laptop machine, they would be forced to buy two copies of Photoshop, making the upgrade cost $800 instead of $169.

Is it a good idea?

Software vendors face a constant struggle against piracy. Large scale piracy is rampant globally, with software copies sold at pennies per CD in many major cities in Asia, for example. So steps such as activation are an unfortunate but necessary step. However, by limiting the activations to 2, Adobe is clearly stating that they are not just worried about the big picture of widespread piracy, but that they want to squeeze more money out of the little guy, who may share one copy of Photoshop with his family or across several machines. Legally, that is their right. But it will cause substantial ill-will among many in their creative professional community and further open the door to lower-priced and more aggressive competitors. While Photoshop is king of the hill this may not seem like much of a threat, but Lotus 1-2-3 held a similar position when Borland shattered the price and licensing barrier with its $150 Quattro spreadsheet and "No-Nonsense" licensing--which attracted corporate customers in droves away from Lotus's hard to administer licensing system.

While there are technical reasons the activation scheme is not on Mac right away, there are also some sound political ones. If Adobe can get its key allies, the Mac graphic arts community, to adopt and promote PS8 before they have to face a decision about activation, it stands a good chance of dragging the Windows user base along.

Bottom line is that I don't see Adobe pulling back from Activation, although expect some 'user-friendly' enforcement in the early going while Adobe tries to sooth ruffled feathers and perhaps some slightly looser activation policies if there is sufficient backlash to the machine limits.--David Cardinal