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Memo to Apple: Please Keep the Honor System

One thing that’s been part and parcel of the Mac OS ever since it was a free download is the lack of an activation code. That means you can freely install it on multiple computers and not face nasty messages from the “mother ship” or finding that your system no longer functions.

Now this doesn’t mean that, from a user license standpoint, you are free to install the Mac OS on all these computers. If you want to be fully compliant, you would consider ordering, say, the family version at $70 more, which makes Mac OS X street legal on up to five computers.

For businesses, there are other license programs so you get the appropriate number of seats to accommodate a company’s needs.

At the same time, however, you aren’t forced to assemble massed license codes and figure out where they are to be used. Of course, in all fairness to Apple, some software companies that depend on individual licensing may deliver a single company license number that will cover a predetermined maximum number of users, and use network checking and online verification to make sure you don’t exceed that number. That at least simplifies the setup process.

But let’s compare this to the Windows situation, where the licensing requirements for Vista have been tightened up yet again. As usual, it is one license per machine, even if you have a note-book and a desktop computer that are seldom or never used at the same time, and if Microsoft’s servers decide your operating system shouldn’t be activated for any reason, you find yourself running a crippled system. Worse, Microsoft is checking your hardware setup when you activate Windows, and if you have made too many changes, it might require that you go through the irritating and perhaps time-consuming process of calling Microsoft to prove to them it’s the same computer.

It only gets more mind-boggling. Take virtualization. Instead of running Windows Vista native — and this is a new wrinkle — you decide you’d rather use Parallels Desktop or the VMWare Fusion beta on your Mac. You still have to pay the very same amount of money for your copy of Windows, but Microsoft’s user license strictly prohibits running the Home versions on a virtual environment, which is what Parallels and VMWare offer. That’s right! You have to buy one of the higher-priced Business versions.

Why should it make any difference to Microsoft? Well, they can provide some obtuse spin that it has something to do with the fact that only businesses ought to have any interest in virtual machines. It’s not that the home user might want Vista to run business-oriented software for which there’s no Mac requirement to be compatible with what they use at the office.

Now this doesn’t mean that a home version of Vista won’t activate on a virtual machine. From what I hear — and I won’t officially say I’ve tried this myself — it does work just fine. That’s because virtualization presents a standard hardware configuration to Windows, so it assumes it’s just another PC.

As far as Apple is concerned: The lack of an activation scheme is restricted to the operating system and low-end apps. Many Apple products, even iWork ’06, come with a user license number. Some applications, such as the Logic Pro, the audio editing application, even include a dongle, which is a hardware activation device that plugs into one of your Mac’s USB ports.

So what’s going to happen when Leopard arrives? Well, I suppose if Apple added its own activation scheme, and continued ultra-cheap alternatives for multiple user licensing, they’d still get lots and lots of complaints. “They’re becoming like Microsoft!” would be the common complaint.

Indeed, when Apple first stopped providing free copies of the latest Mac OS in the early 1990s, there was a hue and cry that was simply ignored. If you want the latest and greatest, prepare to pay. Only maintenance updaters are free.

These days, the $129 you shell out for a Mac OS X upgrade is, in fact, rather cheap in the scheme of things. Compare that to what Microsoft is asking for any version of Vista, particularly the ones with all the features intact and not crippled in some fashion.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the price for Leopard went up, nor would I be surprised if Apple did provide unique licensing and some sort of checks and balances system to make sure the same serial number isn’t being used on another Mac. This would simply be a matter of enforcement, really, because the user license already says it’s one copy per Mac. Besides, Mac OS X Server already comes with a licensing number system, so it would only be a natural progression.

At the same time, however, I do hope Apple will leave things be, and rely on the honor and honesty of Mac users to buy the number of software licenses they truly need.