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The Problem with Piracy Paranoia June 25, 2007

Posted by Jim Satterfield in Business & Society, Geek Stuff.
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Most software companies worry about piracy and intellectual property theft. This is only reasonable. But then the question becomes what do you do about it? How does that decision affect your customers and what are your obligations to them?

This was driven home to a lot of people recently. A company named AppForge made a very useful program that allowed programmers to develop applications for almost every hand held device available. And you could do it in Visual Basic, a language that some hard core computer geeks hate but many programmers find useful for rapidly developing applications. Their program wasn’t cheap and in addition to the cost of the development environment they started charging for every “booster”, the component that you have to install on any device you want to run your programs. To enforce this, each booster had to be activated in a process similar to when you activate your copy of Windows or some other programs. This activation depends on servers maintained by the software company.

Well, in March AppForge went out of business. There was no advance warning and the company made no provisions for its customers. The company’s IP was purchased by Oracle, one of the industry’s big kahunas in databases and other business software and everything else went to a financial services company. No one is running activation servers. Every customer of AppForge’s who needs to install their software on a new device or anyone who needs to reinstall the main software on a PC for any reason is out of luck. Until someone figures a way to crack their activation algorithm it’s not possible.

The company I work for was considering whether we needed to upgrade the version of AppForge we are using though we hadn’t needed to yet. Then one day I went to their web site and was redirected to Oracle. Our old version doesn’t have that pitfall and I have the code that lets ours work. I’ve never been so glad to be running an old version of a piece of software.  Sometime if we still want to develop for Palm OS V.5 or later I’ll have to find something else that will do the job but I do wonder about all of those customers left in a major league lurch and it makes me wonder about the business model that relies on servers like this. I think that lots of people who got burned by AppForge or those who hear this story will hopefully start asking their vendors “What if…”. I know that I will.

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