Copy Protected Programs and Windows XP

There is a simple reason why I refuse to allow copy protected programs on any system I use unless I have no choice whatsoever: Experience. Lots of it.

Before the 70's, all programs were under the control of the vendor, because they were marketed through a computer manufacturer, and every make of computer was incompatible with every other make. You had first to decide what you wanted to use a computer for, and only then go looking for hardware: the hardware for which your vital applications were written. When that computer died, all the expertise you had built up using your applications, and if you weren't careful all your data too, vanished unless you stayed with the same computer manufacturer for your replacement computer. Even then, the manufacturer's products had often changed so much that you were left empty handed. In the lab where I worked, there were at least half a dozen projects, and several careers, that were destroyed when that happened unexpectedly.

Then came the "IBM" PC. Within a year, there were as many applications written for it as existed for any single other hardware. After three years, there were so many alternative suppliers of both PC hardware and software that it became the first computer ever which it was safe to buy first, then decide what you wanted to use it for. That meant that non-expert users, for the first time, could evolve their own computer uses, within their own framework rather than being dependent upon computer specialists. It was freedom for users.

But, it also meant that people could move programs and data around much more freely than they had ever been able to do before. The PC world promptly split in two. Those who looked to the past developed mechanisms to force each computer to be different from any other so things wouldn't work except on one computer. Those who looked to the future developed applications that sold in such quantity that almost no one bothered to steal them. For many years, most successful computer software providers followed the second route, Microsoft among them.

However, as what came to be known later as a DBMS administrator, I had a problem - there were extremely few PC database apps that were compatible with the old style mainframes, and all departmental-level stuff was done on mainframes. One supplier, however, was a large company, and there was a coordinated effort within the department to equip each division with at least one PC database system that was compatible with the departmental mainframe. I went along. Their copy protection scheme was called a 'key diskette' - a 5-1/4" floppy that was made with an 'illegal' structure that no standard software could read.

Just as I was about ready to 'switch the system on', to make it responsible for divisional management reports, a secretary rolled her chair over the diskette. The program wouldn't accept it any more. The version of the program I was using had been replaced by a new one - hardly surprising. But the company's policy was - a replacement key diskette for the version we had would not be supplied. Then, I discovered that my own division's data was encoded using the key diskette data, in such a way that it could not be used by any of the department's other authorised copies of the same program. All our backups, all our other 'compatible' systems, were useless. We were totally at the mercy of the company to use them. The company proposed blandly that if we shipped them all our data (confidential and in some cases very sensitive data, I note), they would convert it to the new format and sell us the new version of the program - in a few months and at a cost equivalent to quite a bit more than my annual salary.

I will never forget the ensuing 3 weeks. I programmed a replacement database system from scratch (in ANSI Basic) and re-entered data from the trial printed reports (in application-independent formats) about 18 hours a day for the entire time. But, the job got done - the required reports were ready for the crucial financial year end. And, I vowed that never again would a copy protected app be allowed on any system that I needed for my work.

And so it was that I developed standards for manufacturer-independent data transfer and backup for my division. They were based on the principle that our data and our expertise had to remain under our control. They were mandated by management and, as far as I am aware, the problem never recurred in my division.

But, there were other divisions in the department. There was a later case where a 'dongle' (a gizmo that plugs into the printer port whose answers are supposedly unpredictable except to the app) was thrown out in error. (It was incompatible with some other device that used the printer port and had to be unplugged whenever the other device was in use.) The app was a programming 'environment', all programs and data were encoded in some mysterious way, the user had made no hard copy backups, the company was out of business. Another case involved a minor lab fire - it melted the floppy backups, but the PC hard drive was salvageable. Except, that a crucial app was copy protected and couldn't be transferred to a replacement hard drive. The app company had been bought by another and the 'line' dropped - no replacement was available. Both cases were major disasters to their projects.

Now, Microsoft, who led the way to freedom in computing, who has done more than any other company to empower the world to use computers effectively for their needs, has abandoned its past. Windows XP is now copy protected, with an 'access code' that is specific to a single computer. Once again, if anything happens to your physical computer, you will be totally at the mercy of Microsoft as to whether or not you can continue to use the hard-won expertise you have developed with your operating system and applications. Once again, unless you have the skill to back up your data in app-independent formats, your own data will be under the control of others.

And so it is that this site, which used to feature a logo of Windows zapping Linux, and the Webring code for the Proud and Visible Microsoft Supporters' Ring, now shows neither. Linux is still a system for hackers, and I'm tired of being a hacker - 30 years of it was enough; I'm on to other things. So, all I can do is to keep Windows NT and Me running as long as I can, and hope that, when I can no longer get support for new peripherals with them, Lindows or some such will have reached the stage of maturity that Windows has had for so long.

As ABBA put it - "Thanks for the music", Microsoft. But you can't hold my tune any more.

A Footnote

Increasingly, other software firms are adopting Microsoft's strategy. If you download a free trial program that requires that you provide a code generated on your computer by that program to register it after you've paid for it, that program is copy protected. If your computer dies and needs to be replaced, in a few documented cases even if you simply defrag your hard disk, you will only be allowed to continue using the program if the software distributor agrees to provide a new code. Many claim the right to make you pay for it all over agin in these circumstances. And, if they no longer support the product, or are out of business, you're out of luck, 100%, no matter what the cost to you.

John Sankey
other notes on computing