Serial Number Annoyances: To Read This Post, Enter Your 32-Character Access Code

Serial Number AnnoyancesLast weekend I went to Fry’s twice to buy things featured in its anniversary sale. This means that I bought a few things I do not need simply because they were free after rebates. Two of the things I bought were software packages. Both were impulse buys — unnecessary, but potentially useful.

One of the software applications was Nero 11, which updates my older version. I do not know if the improvements are worth making a change, but, hey, it is free — well, almost. I had to fill out two rebate forms and show proof of previous ownership, but that was not bad for a major upgrade. My main gripe started when I put the disc into my computer to start the installation. To install this update, I needed to enter a 32-character serial number, which was printed in sans-serif letters on the back of the sleeve. This number is composed of a mixture of numerals and upper case letters. That means this single number could take on 36 raised to the 32nd power different values. This is about 6.3 times 10 raised to the 49th power. That would be about 10 to the 40th individual values for every human on Earth. What purpose can be served by such overkill? We do not even have convenient words to describe such a huge number. You can only pile so many quadrillions on top of each other before it looks really silly. I understand the need for security and that the serial number is actually a code to prevent copying, but why burden us customers with your problem?

The second application I purchased, TuneUp Utilities 2012, was simply to see what it does and because it was free on rebates. Sometimes my clients ask me about such applications, and I do not like to seem unaware. It is a good idea to try them out so I can give meaningful recommendations. This package only needed one rebate, but I was surprised and dismayed when I installed it to discover that this application beat out Nero by a large margin. Its serial number is 36 characters long — also numerals and upper case letters! This means that there are about 1.7 million TuneUp Utilities serial numbers for every Nero serial number! Why is that? Is there some kind of pecking order in application annoyances? “My serial number is longer than yours…”

There are so many ways that providers can protect themselves against piracy that one has to wonder why they put the burden on honest consumers. And why do we put up with it? Are we sheep? For instance, there are several numbers associated with my computer that can be accessed by the software to verify a valid installation. A reasonably short serial number could be compared with onboard numbers to determine legitimacy. Without working at it too hard, I can even think of methods a manufacturer could use that would provide some level of security without manually entering any serial number. This is not done, so I must be wrong.

Yes, this rant must be based on mistaken thoughts because we all know that even Microsoft requires input of a serial number that also is astronomical in its capabilities. And again, I recognize that the serial number does more than simply count, which is why Microsoft does not call it a serial number, but that does nothing to change the fact that providers of proprietary software think it is perfectly appropriate for customers to be burdened with manual entry of random strings of numbers. Some offenders even close an installation if the entry has an error, forcing a complete start over.

In a competitive world, one would think that software installation processes would have evolved toward more user-friendly methods, but has that happened? Yes, in part it has. The actual mechanics of installing has certainly become less painful and easier than in years past. But we still have the onus of entering large arrays of meaningless alphanumeric strings to get the rewards.

Surely there are other solutions. Here is a suggestion. Print a 2D barcode on the sleeve next to the serial number. Then, if the installing computer has a webcam, it can simply grab an image of it. That would perform the same function as entering an alphanumeric string. For those who do not have webcams, the option of manually entering characters still is available. I have not seen barcodes used in this way, so maybe there is something wrong with my thoughts. As I said before, I am often wrong in suggesting fixes for problems, but — and this is important — just because I am wrong in suggesting a solution, I am not necessarily wrong in identifying the problem. And I am being kind in even suggesting alternative solutions. Simply pointing out the problem should be sufficient. (I am reminded of early motorcycles that were poorly designed because the users did not complain and early sewing machines, which quickly evolved to high reliability because the users would not tolerate failures. Honda changed that, but if early motorcyclists had complained more, we would have had better motorcycles sooner.)

The process of entering a code to enable using a software package amounts to a shared activity between the vendor and a customer to prevent piracy. What is the reasonable sharing of responsibility to fight illegal copying? Am I wrong to fret about being forced to manually enter long strings of random characters exactly so that I can use software I purchased?

None of these issues would exist if the cost of copying software (or music or movies) was significant. To some extent, I am complaining about a lag between the technology of copying and the technology of protection given a for-profit system. What do you think?

CC licensed Flickr photo by lrargerich