In Praise of the Dongle

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January of 2008. Some of it still makes sense and some of it doesn’t.

Back in the MS-DOS days, getting a new computer was easy. Not only was your new computer strikingly faster than what you had, but moving your work was just a matter of copying some directories over on floppy disks and maybe setting your PATH variable back to what it was before. Then you’d just type the names of your programs and they worked.

In the 90’s, things slowly got more complicated. First you had fancy installers writing files anywhere they felt like it, then later you had Windows registry keys to worry about. Now when you got a new computer, you couldn’t just copy files, but at least you could reinstall from your original disks. Often you’d lose a lot of settings and have to go through a lot of trouble to get back where you were (I don’t think anyone has actually moved a registry key from one computer to another and gotten it to work).

That was bad enough, but right around the time Windows XP came out, things took a turn for the worse. That’s when Microsoft started saying it was OK to tie an installed application to a single computer as a means of piracy control, and many other vendors followed suit. Nowadays, everything from Photoshop down to sub-$50 music software uses this kind of active registration scheme. Some are fairly good about letting you move from one computer to another (Photoshop, for example, has a deauthorization command right on the menu) while other products just leave you guessing (Sony’s Acid let me install it twice, but I have only the vaguest idea of whether I’m technically in violation of their terms, or when my grace period runs out). And if your old computer ends up trashed instead of gracefully retired, now you’ve got to call someone and beg for mercy to get your licence back.

But the story gets even worse. That’s because Microsoft decided to gift the world with Vista, a universally disliked new version of Windows that we’re being force-fed with every new PC purchase. As a result, many of us who formerly had no interest in “alternative” operating systems are taking a good look at Linux and Mac as our next purchase. I like the Mac; I could do most of what I need on a Mac. The devil is in the licensing. Take Photoshop, for example. Photoshop makes versions for both Windows and Mac, but they license them as separate products. That means I can’t release my Photoshop license on Windows and reinstall on a Mac. No, I have to re-buy the whole license. At almost $700, that’s a huge motivation to avoid trying something new.

What can be done about this mess? One solution is to simply resign yourself to re-buying the software you want every couple of years to avoid being chained to an old computer. I wouldn’t mind doing that for a $50 product, but I’m not going to do it for a $500 product. The best solution is something we all scoffed at when it was first invented, but is now something that’s worth a serious look. I’m talking about the Dongle.

The best piece of software I own is Steinberg’s The Grand, a software piano instrument. I say this not because the software is especially terrific, but because its license resides on a small USB device. I can install The Grand from its DVD-ROM onto any computer I want, including my own computer or friend’s computers. Each copy only runs when the dongle is installed. Steinberg doesn’t care where I put the bits as long as only one copy runs at a time. It’s a very freeing experience. I have tried The Grand on every computer I own, and lent it to friends, all without breaking any rules. I can upgrade computers whenever I want (even to a Mac) without losing my software (even if Steinberg goes out of business).

Dongles have a bad name, I know. But think about it. Today’s online registration schemes are doing the same thing, except that they are using your entire computer as the dongle. Which would you rather have – a license tied to a tiny keychain-sized USB stick, or one tied to a 15-pound mini-tower? Which is more likely to become obsolete or suffer a hard drive crash? Dongles are the clear winner.

The only thing that would make dongles better is if there were an industry-standard way to store multiple software licenses on one physical dongle (and transfer them securely if need be). Imagine walking around with your Photoshop license, your Sound Forge license, and all the other licenses you need attached to your keychain. Public computers could have those apps installed on them at no cost to the business providing the computer, but they would only work when someone presented a valid license via their dongle. And you’d never have to think about moving your licenses to a new computer or losing valuable software when you dispose of your old one.

Dongles are the way! 

Epilogue: I bought my first Mac a few months after posting this and loved it. I still use a Mac as my primary computer today.