Serial Number Killers


I’ve been mulling the issue of registering and activating software of late, and while I feel users generally are less averse to the process of having to enter a serial number or activating a program before they can use it than before, I think there’s still a lot of frustration out there.

And I know from clients that it’s a balancing act between upsetting users and not encouraging those who seem unable or unwilling to pay to have a free ride.

It seems to me to boil down to this: Users who have paid for software expect to be able to use it out of the box. It would be like taking a bread maker home and having to call the manufacturer before you can start making bread.

What’s more, customers shouldn’t have to cope with silly technical problems that aren’t their fault. The example above is from my efforts to test Adobe’s latest version of Acrobat. The initial installation failed, and now it’s blocking the legitimate serial number it previously accepted—on the same machine. I still haven’t found a way around this problem, so my ardour for things Adobe has diminished a little.

The problem is that it’s fixable. I can yell at Adobe and hopefully I’ll get another serial number. But that’s not going to happen now—when I need it. It’s going to happen in 24, 48, 72 hours’ time. By which time I may feel like a mug for buying the software in the first place.

Here’s a possible solution: An automated temporary serial number that will work until a proper serial number can be available. This could be delivered online—say, a bot on IM, where you enter the serial number that’s not working and get issued a temporary one that does. Or a product could come with two serial numbers, one a permanent one and one a backup one.

Once customer service comes online and fixes the problem, the emergency serial number can be deactivated. As it lasts only for, say, 48 hours it would be relatively worthless to pirates. It will also push software companies to ensure they get back to frustrated customers within the allotted time or risk further wrath.

Either way, software manufacturers have got to make it easy for users to get around the limitations, and frailties, of the registration and activation process. Users should never be left in the lurch for even an hour if they’re a legitimate customer. It’s up to the software companies to address this issue. Perhaps something like this already exists, but if not I think an emergency serial number might be an answer.

Starting A Computer That Won’t Start

If you have problems starting Windows XP because of a blue screen telling you (I forget the exact wording) that you need to run CHKDSK /f and disable all antivirus and disk management programs, here’s a possible solution.

The problem is that while you’d love to run CHKDSK /f — which runs a check on your hard drive and fixes any file errors — you can’t actually start Windows, or even get to a DOS prompt, to do it. The furthest you’re likely to get is a screen listing the drivers being loaded, but stopping at one called agp440.sys. Then the blue screen. Here’s what worked for me (it assumes you have a spare computer and an external drive casing for your hard drive, whichever size it is. I’ve learned to hang onto these kind of things for just such a situation as this):

  • Turn off the computer (I’m assuming it’s a laptop but this would work with a desktop too)
  • Remove the hard drive (take photos with your cellphone if necessary to remind yourself where the screws went, etc)
  • Attach the hard drive to your second computer using the external casing
  • Run CHKDSK /f (or any Disk Checker utility) over the hard drive. This should fix the problems with the hard drive
  • Remove hard drive from external casing and put back in original computer.
  • Restart computer

May not work for everyone but it worked for me.

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Using Bluetooth To Disable Camera Phones

Here’s a possible solution to the problem of camera-phone voyeurs.

Lee Choo Kiong of Singapore’s AsiaOne reports (thanks ITJournoAsia, subscription required) on three Temasek Polytechnic students who have come up with software that will disable camera functions on some cellphones, using Bluetooth.

What I think happens is that software is loaded into the cellphone (presumably with the user’s permission and knowledge) and then once the cellphone comes into range of the Bluetooth device, its camera functions are disabled. Other functions of the phone would work normally, the report says. The report quotes one of the inventors, Lu Qian, 21, as saying: “This technology is useful in places where confidentiality is paramount, such as on military grounds, where visitors are not allowed to bring in their cellphones.”

Obviously this is limited by the fact that you can only load the software with the user’s cooperation. And the software has so far been successfully tested only with Nokia 6600 and 7210 Bluetooth phones. It failed with a Nokia 7650 model, the report says.

On the other hand, as the inventors say, this might be useful in places where, instead of banning all phones, owners could submit their phone for modification and then be allowed to keep it, the camera disabled. That would make sense in military installations, factories, gyms or other places of sensitivity or virtue.

A Way To Marry Offline And Online Shopping?

Further to my post about the perils of offline browsing and online buying, here’s a possible solution, from Wi-Fi Networking News: Software that lets PDA users check out details and reviews of a book while in the bookstore. SmartWorlds’ free software lets PDA users (customers can borrow a PDA and scanner from staff) shop and learn more about books while they’re in a bookstore: Users are connected to’s site where they can read reviews of the book, check pricing, and see other books recommended by readers.

Here’s the neat bit: In Boston, where the service is in place, the Trident bookstore is considered an affiliate of Amazon so if users of this service later buy one of the books they browsed for on Amazon, Trident earns a commission. Whether other bookstores are brave enough to do this I’m not sure, but it’s a possible answer to the problem outlined in the earlier post. The beauty of it is that the bookstores play to their strengths: a great, comfortable place to browse and hang out, and the unmistakable allure of allowing customers to have that book in their hands, right now.