Software Serial Numbers Suck. Here’s a Better Idea

I’ll admit it: I’m a software junkie.

I download pretty much every app that catches my attention, play with it for a few weeks and then, if I like it, I buy it. I now own so many software licenses that I’m having trouble managing them (though I do use LicenseKeeper to help me).

And software developers aren’t making it any easier for me. In fact, the Mac software development community is just making it harder for their users as time goes on.

I just purchased the MacUpdate Promo Spring Bundle and, without a doubt, it’s the best-value Mac software bundle I’ve ever purchased.

But, man, downloading, installing, and licensing the software was a pain the butt. There are at least three different licensing schemes being used amongst this collection of apps. Some use serial numbers, some seem to be generating licensed copies of the apps on the fly, others require me to register with a their server.

I consider myself an advanced Mac user and I was challenged by the process. I pity any novice who purchased the bundle. They’ll have a hard time macheteing through the software licensing jungle that it represents.

But it’s not just the MacUpdate Promo bundle. It’s like this with all software. Downloading, installing, licensing, and then managing the various aspects of software ownership and licensing are some of the biggest pains of computer us. And they just shouldn’t be.

That’s why the iTunes App Store is so successful: it does away with the pain of software purchasing, ownership, and licensing, and leaves the simple  joy of application use behind. But, sadly, there’s no App Store for the Mac OS or Windows.

So here’s my idea for a better way to sell and license desktop software: establish an open, shared licensing environment that provides hooks for e-commerce systems and provides a single entry point for users to activate the products they buy.

I’d suggest that the emerging OpenID standard would provide a great way for users to license the apps they buy. Rather than serial numbers or custom apps or custom verification systems, users would simply provide their new app with the OpenID information.

The OpenID system would then communicate with that central, open licensing database to verify that this user owns a valid license.

From the user’s perspective, the benefit is huge: they now only have to remember one piece of information when they purchase a license for any piece of software: their OpenID identity.

It would also provide developers with more control over the software licenses they issue, and may reduce their effort in managing whatever licensing scheme they’re using.

Eventually, it could even pave the way to a desktop or web App Store that’s not owned by a major third party, such as Apple, but could be community run by independent software developers.

I’m just an end user expressing pain here, and I’m well aware there’s a strong utopian aspect to my dream here. After all, some software developers seem more fickle than pop stars.

But it might be worthwhile to explore before Apple establishes something similar and begins to extort 10% of sales from every app they host.

One thought on “Software Serial Numbers Suck. Here’s a Better Idea

  1. Your OpenID suggestion is clever. I hope a few companies take note.

    Having run a small IT department for the past few months, I can confidently assert that managing software licences is the least-enjoyed aspect of the job. Each manufacturer has invented their own scheme of individual, metered, and site licences and then pushes the burden of understanding it all to the reseller, whose value-added service seems to consist merely of stabbing the e-mail client’s Forward button. And then for the privilege of wading through these dense contracts and initialling boxes G, H, and K, the manufacturer consents to collect your money.

    I would think there’s a business opportunity in there somewhere: Software Licence Broker.

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