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Mission accomplished?

Feb 17, 20033 mins
Enterprise Applications

It would have taken a concentrated effort for Intuit to do a better job of messing up its public image than it did when introducing an activation requirement for the Windows version of TurboTax.

It would have taken a concentrated effort for Intuit to do a better job of messing up its public image than it did when introducing an activation requirement for the Windows version of TurboTax.

From the point of deciding to require such a feature and then every step of the way, the company seemed to pick the path that would maximize user suspicions and the damage to Intuit’s image and product sales. It’s almost like whoever at Intuit made these decisions was a mole in the secret pay of H&R Block, which sells TaxCut, the main competitor to TurboTax.

In the early days of PCs many software companies tried various forms of copy protection to “protect their [intellectual property rights]” (as a spokesman for Intuit said they were trying to do). The schemes caused widespread user revolt and within a few years almost all of the schemes had been discarded in favor of unprotected versions. Intuit seems to have studied everything that the customers found to be wrong with the old protection techniques and carefully recreated them in TurboTax.

System backups are hard if not Impossible; recovery from a disk replacement is problematic; moving the software to a different machine is blocked; and there is no assurance that you will be able to use the software in five years. Then Intuit added a few other touches: the company did not make it clear to users what was happening; it used third-party software that was widely thought to be spyware; and, the company set it up so that the third-party software would run in the user’s machine forever, even if TurboTax was uninstalled. Good job indeed if you worked for H&R Block, but not so good if your loyalty was to Intuit.

But just what problem was Intuit trying to solve? Remember that this is inexpensive software (starting at $19.95) with a built-in requirement to purchase new software each year forced by the U.S. Congress changing tax laws. Was there so much piracy of the $19.95 version that it was worth making life significantly harder for users? I would expect that most of the piracy that did exist was not by individuals who gave copies of the CD to their officemates, but rather by professional software pirates. So making usage harder for the average user is the equivalent of punishing New York City because of a few crooks. Maybe Intuit thinks this is a reasonable balance. I would predict that if the company keeps thinking this way, H&R Block will be the beneficiary and Intuit will have less to worry about because it will be selling less software.

Software piracy is a real problem, but it should be addressed where the real threat is and that is generally not with individuals buying inexpensive software. I expect that there are things which can be done technically to help here, but let’s aim at the high-value targets and not penalize everyone. That is, unless you secretly work for the competition.

Disclaimer: Intuit treating all of its customers like potential crooks might increase demand at the Harvard Law School, but the school did not express an opinion on the value of moles. The above observation is my own.