All new products released after April 2005 use product activation; this includes Synergy Advance and Hextrapolate. Products released prior to April 2005 — Synergy, WinSwitch and Install — do not feature product activation.
What is Product Activation?
Product activation takes place when you enter your license code in a Wincent product (but note that not all Wincent products use product activation yet). The program connects once (and once only) to the wincent.com webserver to validate the license and the product is then activated permanently. If you later install the product on another machine, then you will need to activate the product once more. Activation requires nothing more than a click of button and takes only a few seconds (see a sample screenshot from a development version of Synergy Advance; the email address and license address have been blurred for the purposes of the screenshot only).
Why use Product Activation?
The Product Activation system is the result of nearly two years' engineering work with the goal of reducing the damage done by software piracy without inconveniencing honest users. Much thought has gone into implementing the system in a clean and elegant fashion; whereas in older products users entered their license codes and clicked an "OK" button, they now click a "Verify" button. The only difference is that their license is now verified with the wincent.com server and after few seconds or less the product is permanently activated. No personal information is transmitted to the Wincent server in the process so your privacy is protected (read the Activation Privacy FAQ for more details).
In the past piracy has had a heavy impact on Wincent. One of the great things about the Internet is that it makes it very easy to distribute software to a large number of people. Unfortunately for software developers it's also very easy to distribute license codes and cracks. A single leak can quickly lead to thousands of pirated copies. Product Activation minimizes the damage caused by such leaks. If the same license code is used to activate a product hundreds or thousands of times, then it's clear that a leak has occurred and further activations can be stopped before the damage spreads too far.
Product activation is employed by some of the largest software companies in the world such as Microsoft, Macromedia, Adobe, Network Associates and Symantec and the list is constantly growing. In the not-too-distant future product activation is likely to be included in the majority of commercial software. (You can read more general information about product activation and the companies that use it on this page at the Business Software Alliance website.)
How does it work?
When you install a product for the first time it generates a random number that is unique to the machine on which the software is being installed. The number is what is known as a one-way cryptographic hash; it's so called because the calculation only works in one direction: it is easy to generate the number based on the machine, but it is impossible to look at the number and know which machine it came from.
A hash is also made from your license code. The one-way nature of the hash means that if somebody were to see it he or she would have no way of figuring out what your license code was; nevertheless, the hash is a unique number and no two licenses will produce the same hash. For more information about how these cryptographic hashes guarantee your privacy see the Activation Privacy FAQ.
These two pieces -- let's call them the "machine hash" and the "license hash" -- are sent to the Wincent server at activation time. If the server sees many activation requests coming in with the same license hash but lots of different machine hashes, then it knows that the software is being activated on many different machines with the same license code. Note that because one-way hashes are used in the process noboby can personally identify machines or customers; the numbers are just random ID numbers that cannot be traced back to a particular individual or computer.
The activation server permits a reasonable number of activations for any given license code. For example, you may buy a new machine and wish to install the software on the new machine in which case you'll perform the product activation on the new machine. (If you need to to perform additional activations above the limit then you can open a support ticket.) Similarly, some may buy multi-user licenses and need to activate on a large number of machines; in this case also the activation server knows that it should allow a higher number of activations. See "How many activations may I perform?" below for more information.
When the server approves an activation it sends a reply to the connecting program containing a certificate of activation. The program stores the activation certificate along with the program preferences. From that point onwards the program will know that it's been activated and you won't have to perform the activation again (although if you ever format your hard disk, modify your machine sufficiently for it to appear like a "new machine" or otherwise delete the activation certificate you'll need to reactivate).
When does it happen?
Wincent products will never "phone home" without your permission. Product Activation occurs when you first enter your license code and you press the "Verify" button. The user interface for entering your license code makes it very clear what will happen, so there are no surprises (see these sample screenshots: Sample A, Sample B). If you cannot connect to the Internet to perform the activation, the software will remind you to do so the next time you run it.
What happens if the network is down when I try to activate?
The software will still run without activation so if you have a temporary network failure you can try again later at your convenience. The software will remind you to do so the next time you run it. Once the software has been activated it does not need to connect to the Internet again so there is no dependency on a network connection.
The wincent.com activation server runs an industry-standard UNIX-like operating system (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and is hosted by Rackspace, regarded by many as the most reliable hosting provider in the world (for more on Rackspace, see this article). Their data centers have uninterruptable backup power generators and multiple, redundant, high-bandwidth connections to the Internet. Rackspace guarantees a "Zero-Downtime Network™". In the unlikely event that you cannot connect to the activation servers during maintenance or due to a transitory network fault between your machine and the servers you will find that you can continue to use the software and perform the activation later.
What happens if Wincent stops trading?
So what happens if Wincent stops trading at some point in the future and the activation server goes off-line forever? How can people continue to enjoy the software they've licensed if they can't activate it?
Wincent has no plans to discontinue trading but recognises that this is a frequently voiced concern about product activation and so makes the following undertaking, backed by Wincent's reputation as an online vendor since 1997:
In the event that Wincent should stop trading it will do one of the following at its discretion:
- Make available for free download updated versions of all products with the product activation requirements removed. These versions would be freely redistributable.
- Make available special license codes which turn off the product activation requirement. These codes would be freely redistributable.
- Release the source code for the protected applications under an open source license such as the GPL or the BSD license.
Am I being accused me of being a thief?
Most definitely not. The vast majority of people who purchase licenses are honest users who would never think of sharing their license code in breach of their license agreement. Product activation is not about accusing honest users of being thiefs. Product activation is about minimizing the damage done by an extremely small minority of dishonest users. This minority makes everyone else worse off, because widespread piracy eats into sales which in turn means that software companies have fewer resources available for development; the consequence is then fewer products, and less updates. Product activation addresses the problem caused by this minority and benefits everyone else because profitable software companies have more resources to pour into improving their products and releasing them sooner.
The Wincent product activation system has been developed according to some best practice guidelines (see here) whose goal is to ensure that honest users are not penalized or inconvenienced. The idea is to make life difficult for those who would break the rules, and make life easy for the good guys.
At the time of writing (September 2006) the number of activations that may be performed for a single-user license is five. A single-user license permits you to install and run the software on a single machine, but the activation limit is set to five activations, not one, to allow for scenarios such as switching to a new machine, replacing your hard drive, or performing a full system re-install. This is because the spirit of the activation system is to target mass piracy, not penalize honest, paying customers.
The number of activations permitted may be adjusted in the future based on experience and feedback from customers. Since the release of Synergy Advance in May 2005, a five-activation limit has proved to be appropriate in the vast majority of cases. An automatic system is in place that performs a yearly revision of each license and that grants users an additional activation per license, per user, per year; this should fit in nicely with the typical pattern in which users upgrade to new machines once every year or two. The additional activation(s) are applied to any license that is in good standing (activation limit not exceeded) and which has been activated at some point in the previous 12 months.
If you exceed the activation limit, you may open a support ticket and request that your limit be reset.
The Business Software Alliance has published a set of best practice guidelines for Product Activation. The Wincent Product Activation fulfills or exceeds each and every one of the guidelines:
Respect for Privacy
Activation should not collect or transmit personally identifiable information without the users' explicit knowledge and should comply with applicable data protection laws.
Ease of Use
Activation methods should not be burdensome to the user. Ideally, they should be limited to a one-time step or process per machine.
Publishers should clearly explain the activation process, including the activation data and how it is transmitted, so that users understand how activation works and are assured that their privacy will be respected.
Documentation and access to high quality support should be made available to assist users with activating their product and to answer their questions.
The activation solution should use appropriate security to protect stored and transmitted activation data.
The activation process should be completed as quickly as possible.
Activation should empower users to easily move their software program to a new or upgraded computer in a manner authorized by the license agreement.