Mark Gibbs: Opening another can of dongles

“Just another thing that won’t work, to add to software that doesn’t work, hardware that doesn’t function, and service people who have no clue. Just one more thing to separate me from the machines and their effective use. Just one more thing to be made obsolete by the ‘upgrade’ of any one component. The very thought of the return of dongles makes me long to live in a Third World country. At the moment, starvation looks preferable although I would doubtless change my mind when it was too late.”

– e-mail from Jane Axtell

Wow! Did I open up a can of worms or what with my column suggesting that dongles might be a better antipiracy mechanism than the likes of Microsoft Corp.’s Product Activation system? (“Why not do IT,…” NWC, February 8, 2002, page19)

I haven’t had a chance to count the yeas and nays, but it appears that it is roughly a 50-50 split on the fundamental question of to dongle or not to dongle.

In the barrage of mail, some interesting themes emerged…that is, themes other than “you are a running dog of capitalism” and “rot in hell, heretic.”

A major theme was dongles won’t work. One reader wrote with the weight of experience: “As a user of dongles in the past, I know that someone has to manage them, create them, correspond a particular dongle to a particular software instance and provide customer support for lost or damaged dongles.”

I absolutely agree, the old dongle technologies were neither reliable nor particularly practical. But I wasn’t suggesting a return to what we used to use, I was suggesting that we need new standards and technologies to make dongles practical. (Oh, and by the way, thanks to all who corrected me on Autocad’s use of dongles – they gave it up some time ago.)

Several readers who seemed in favour of donglism suggested that a smartcard technology would make sense, particularly if multiple access codes could be merged onto a single card.

But where things got really interesting was in the thoughts concerning piracy and how to prevent it. One reader had this to say: “Your closing comment refers to the requirement of a rational, ethical user group. If the bulk of the users were rational and ethical then what would be the point of the dongle? To punish the majority for the sins of the few?”

This misses the point. The software vendors aren’t trying to “punish” anyone. They are trying to prevent misappropriation of their intellectual property. And the requirement for rational and ethical users was to support the adoption of an effective software protection system, not to underpin the system’s functioning.

Basically, if more of us said that we understood the need for software protection, that we would accept its use and we would collaborate on the underlying technology and market framework, the goal of significantly minimizing piracy could and would be realized.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (U.S.). He is at