Microsoft slaps product activation on Mac Office 2011

Gives Mac users shorter grace period than people running Office on Windows, completely cripples suite if it's not activated in time

For the first time, Microsoft has made product activation mandatory for users of Office for the Mac.

But Microsoft has saddled the new Office for Mac 2011 with an activation process that's significantly more draconian than that demanded of customers running the Windows version of the suite.

Office for Mac 2011 comes with a 25-character alphanumeric activation key that must be entered within 15 days of running any of the suite's applications for the first time. During that grace period, the software works as if it had been activated.

At the end of the grace period, Office for Mac 2011 refuses to launch. "[It] becomes unusable," a Microsoft spokesman said in an e-mail reply to Computerworld's questions Wednesday.

Failure to enter the key and activate the suite displays a message on the screen that reads, "You must activate your copy of Office for Mac before you can use it," along with a button that initiates the online activation procedure.

Both the grace period and the ramifications of not activating Office for Mac 2011 are stricter than those facing Office users running Windows.

Windows 2010, for instance, gives customers 30 days to activate the software, and even lets them reset the grace period countdown clock up to five times, giving users up to 180 days before they must activate.

Nor does the Windows suite go DOA if it has not been activated. Instead, Office 2010 drops into what Microsoft calls "Reduced Functionality Mode," which lets users open the applications and view previously-created documents. A copy of Office 2010 in reduced mode will not let users edit or print documents, however.

Wednesday, Microsoft defended product activation on the Mac with the same reasoning that it has used in the past for Office on Windows.

"Microsoft Product Activation tries to reduce counterfeit software, and to make sure that Microsoft customers receive the software quality that they expect," a company support document stated.

Microsoft has aggressively promoted product activation by arguing that it's one way customers are assured they've purchased genuine software. Users have often scoffed at that explanation.

According to Microsoft, the goal of the anti-piracy technology is reduce "casual copying" by tying the software to a specific Mac's hardware configuration. During the activation process, Microsoft also collects other information, including the Mac's IP (Internet protocol) address and the default language of the operating system.

Microsoft debuted Office activation in 2001 with Office XP, but this is the first time it has added the technology to the Mac productivity suite.

The company has also scaled back the number of Macs on which a customer can legally install Office, and uses activation to keep people from violating the terms of the software's end-user licensing agreement (EULA).

The EULA for the $150 Office for Mac Home and Student 2008, for example, granted the user three licenses, each accompanied by a separate serial number. Each license granted the user permission to install Office on both a desktop and a laptop, for a total of six installations.

Office for Mac 2011, however, switched to a single activation code and to an install-based licensing plan, effectively halving the number of Macs on which a customer can install the program. The EULA ( download PDF ) for the $150 Home and Student 2011 Family Pack states, "You may install one copy of the software on up to three licensed devices in your household."

Last August, Macworld senior contributor Rob Griffiths complained about the licensing changes, arguing that Microsoft was penalizing customers with multiple Macs. "To fully license my five-Mac household -- even though I'm the only user of Office -- I'm looking at either $298 for two copies of the three-install Home and Student versions, or (gasp!) $757 for the Home and Office version (a single-install version at $199, and two two-install versions at $279 each)," wrote Griffiths. "It feels like Microsoft is penalizing those who own multiple Macs simple because they own multiple Macs."

Others were also up in arms over Office for Mac's product activation and its enforcement of the suite's more limited EULA.

"There are other ways to improve compliance rates that don't treat your legitimate users like felons," groused Jon Alper in a comment added to a story on activation published last week by the new site.

"I don't have as much problem with activation as I do with the fact that you can no longer install on a desktop and laptop without paying extra," added someone identified as Art.

"I'm with Art on this one. To pay extra to be able to install on a laptop is nonsense," chimed in someone labeled as Jonathan.

Both Art and Jonathan were likely referring to the price difference between the two versions of Office for Mac Home and Business 2011. Microsoft sells a one-install package of that edition for $200 and a two-install version for $280.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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