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By Joel Klebanoff

Licensed Time Wasters

I can't remember the last time I had a problem installing software, and I don't think that has anything to do with my ever-increasing, age-related forgetfulness. The software installations that I've done have sometimes been time-consuming, but they're usually flawless. As I explained in a previous tirade (I can't remember when, but I know I did),  that sort of perfection has aggravated me for the last year or so because it leaves me with nothing to write about in this space, but so be it. Sure, my resulting use of the software is not always quite so idyllic, but that's a topic for another week.

Just to be clear, I should mention that it's been more than 16 years since I was a programmer, so I now install software only on my own PC. I'm sure that there are programmers and system administrators reading this who have horror stories that they can share about mainframe and midrange software installations, but they're their stories, not mine.

Just because I haven't had problems installing PC software doesn't mean that I'm happy with the process. My displeasure has little to do with the installation process itself. What I hate is the administration that the vendors expect me to do before and after installation.

I'd like to take a survey. By a show of hands, how many of you read each and every line in a software license agreement carefully enough so as to thoroughly understand all of the implications of the intricate details of every clause? How many of you do that every single time you install new PC software or a software upgrade? Obviously I can't see you, but I'll bet any money that the people with their hands up could easily be mistaken for anorexic as they don't have time to eat.

What happens when you first drop a disk into your PC's CD-ROM drive in order to load the software it contains? A window pops up displaying 27 screens worth of dreadfully boring contract text. You can't proceed with the installation until you click a button that says something to the effect of "I've read and agreed to the software license." If you click the screen's only other button, "I don't accept the license," the software won't load. I'd like vendors to include another button that says, "You've got to be kidding! There's no way, no way in hell, that I'm going to devote the rest of my week to studying and making an informed decision about the damned stream of interminable verbal diarrhea that you call a license agreement. So please let me continue, but don't assume that I've read the license or that I agree to it." That would be hard to fit on the screen, but it would more accurately reflect my desired response.

Based solely on the length of the license agreement, you would swear that it was composed by Tolstoy, but after you've read the first few clauses there's no doubt that it was written by an excessively anal retentive lawyer who was paid by the hour.

Why can't they make it much simpler and shorter? What I have in mind is something like: "You don't own this software. We do. Assuming it's been paid for in full, you can use it, but only on one computer at a time. You can't lend it, give it, sell it, or share it with anyone else. You also can't accidentally leave it on the park bench where you stopped for lunch on your way back from the computer store. Ever. Period. Don't even think about it. If you contravene any of these legal limitations, we will hunt you down and inflict several severe violations of the Geneva Conventions on your person."

That's really all that needs to be said. Of course, site licenses would have to be a little different, but the only change required would be to replace the "you" in the third sentence with "10 people," "50 people," or whatever number of people. Then replace the "you" in the remaining sentences with "they" or "them" and make the other necessary adjustments to accommodate the plural form. End of story. That's all that it would take. But no, they've got to present us with a license that, if printed in hard copy, would require the clear-cutting of several large old-growth forests.

There used to be a greater price difference between laptop and desktop computers than there is now. Consequently, back then I had one reasonably high-powered computer that I used when I was at my desk. I had a lesser-powered and, therefore, not quite so pricey laptop computer that would, just barely, allow me to get the jobs done that I needed to do while traveling, but it was still slow enough to give me sufficient time between keystrokes to nap and get over any jet lag that I might have. I don't steal software. So back in those days, I used to skim through software license agreements to find the clause that specified whether I could use the software "only on one computer" or "only on one computer a time." If the former, I had to make a decision as to whether to buy a second copy or do without the software on my laptop computer.

About a year ago, I broke down and bought a laptop that, at least for the next 30 days until it becomes obsolete, is powerful enough to use as my sole computer, so I no longer check that clause in the contract. Because most of the other clauses are generally similar from one contract to the next, I now just click the "I agree" button without casting a glance at the document. I figure that, since I never give anyone copies of software and I don't loan out my computer, I'm probably working within the confines of all licenses.

I do worry that vendors might sneak in some new clauses without my learning about them. For example, they might add a restriction that says I can only use the software on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or I can't use it if anyone other than me is within viewing distance of my screen. Because I no longer read the license agreement, I'd never know if they slipped in any new terms like those. I live in constant fear that one day, while I'm busy working at my computer, software police dressed in oppressive-looking riot gear will kick down my door, storm into my office with their heavy guns pointed at me, and shout, "It's Wednesday. You're using our software. You're going to have to come with us."

It hasn't happened so far, but you never know.

OK. So you've dealt with the license (or not) and installed the software. Now you can start putting it to good use, right? Not so fast, impatient one. The first time you fire up the software, up pops a window that says, "Do you want to register online now or would you like us to remind you to register later?" Again, I want a third option. I want a little check box that says, "I never want to register. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not soon. Not ever, because I know that the primary use that you will make of the information I give you will be to pester me mercilessly about buying more of your stupid software and services. So please, please, please go away and leave me alone." As with my suggestion for a new contract acceptance button, the screen geography could be a little difficult, but I think that it would be worthwhile.

I usually answer yes to the registration question for a couple of reasons. First, I worry that if I don't register as a legal user of the software and I have problems with it then, when I call the company for help, the customer support people will refuse to answer my questions. Who am I to deprive them of an opportunity to practice their North American accents?

The second reason I register immediately is that I know that if I don't, every time I try to use the software, the annoying registration window is going to torment me. Over and over, it will continue to pop up in my face until I finally get so frustrated that I climb to the top of my condominium building and heave my laptop computer over the side. That sort of thing could become somewhat costly after a while.

When I go to the company's Web site to register the software, they first ask me a few identifying questions such as name, email address, phone number, and postal address. All of these are mandatory fields. I can't continue until I answer to them.

Once I've provided the answers and clicked the Continue button, I'm presented with the obligatory marketing questions. One of the first is usually "Where did you buy this software?" These days, if the vendor offers convenient delivery to Canada or the software is downloadable, I usually buy it directly from the vendor's Web site. Which begs the question, if they're such hotshot programmers, why couldn't they use the name and email address that I provided on the first registration screen to access their database, see that I bought the software from them, and save me the trouble of answering this ridiculous question?

Next, they usually ask me if I'll be using the software at home or at work. They only let me pick one or the other, not both. I never know how to answer this question. I'm employed by a duly incorporated company (Klebanoff Associates). I have never considered computers to be much of an entertainment vehicle, so all of the software I buy, with the exception of a package that I use to do my personal taxes, is for work. But I work out of my home. So, yes, I'll be using it at home, but I'll also be using it at work. They're the same thing. When I get to this question, I normally close my eyes, move my mouse around randomly and click. Because it usually takes several attempts to actually land in either the "home" or "work" box, this can take a while, but, lacking a life, I have time.

Finally, they typically ask some financial questions: What is your household income? What is your business' annual revenue? How much do you plan to spend on software in the next 12 months? When I get to these questions, I immediately look for the option that says something to the effect of "None of your damned business, you meddlesome little vermin." If that option doesn't exist, I leave the questions blank and hope that they aren't compulsory. If they are compulsory, I abandon the registration process and hope that I never have a problem with the software.

Getting back to those mandatory identifying questions that they always ask at the beginning of the registration process: I just have one question. In this day and age, why do they need my postal address? Are they afraid that there might be a nuclear war that will knock out all electronic communications, making it impossible to use the phone or email and, as a result, they'll have to revert to regular mail to contact me? I have news for them. In the event of a nuclear war, I'm going to try to find the nearest ground zero so I can go there and be among the first to be vaporized. I don't want to try to survive in a world where all of the plant life has been killed off by radiation and genetic mutations cause me to grow a second tongue and a third eye. And, under those conditions, I certainly don't want to waste my time fending off sales solicitations from this repugnant little company that, despite the nuclear holocaust, is still trying to sell me more of their miserable wares. Besides, a nuclear attack would probably wipe out all Starbucks cafés, so what would be the point of living?

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe the vendor's thoughts aren't quite so apocalyptic. Maybe the vendor wants to thank me for my purchase and is planning to send somebody around to have a drink before she takes me out for an expensive dinner and a stage play. I just hope that she gives me a few months advance notice so I have an opportunity to rent some heavy equipment and clean up my place. Nonetheless, I think the nuclear scenario is the more plausible one. Besides, if the person who this software company sends is one of its geeks who will spend the whole evening enumerating and discussing ad infinitum the advantages and disadvantages of programming in Java versus C#, then I think that I'd prefer the nuclear option.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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