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Software Eval Key Question -- Am I being too strict this time?

By Andrew Pollack on 07/14/2005 at 11:45 PM EDT

This time around, with NCT Compliance Search the license key problem is a little different. With a product like NCT Search I'm happy to give away full functionality for 30 days -- and extend that for people who ask. Its the kind of tool that really isn't valuable for you unless you decide to deploy it in a production application. Compliance Search is different. To begin with, there was a lot more work involved in making the thing run fast and stable. That doesn't really matter on the eval question, but it sets the tone a bit.

NCT Compliance Search is the kind of product that I really suspect there are some companies who will need it, and need it badly, but only once in while. Its most common use is for responding to court orders to turn over "all email related to.....". In a situation like that, if I give away full functionality in the beta, I really think I'm open to abuse of the sort where someone can download the tool, use it for a few days to meet the requirement, and then let it expire and hope by next time it'll be cheaper or he'll have more budget.

What supports this, sadly, is the number of <@#@()*&$> users who download NCT Search in demo form and lie outright or just fill in garbage on the registration page despite very clear language up front and center assuring them that they will not be bugged by salespeople (I don't have any).

The funny thing about keys like this, is you need to plan ahead. Once the product is out there, anything you didn't design into the key system can't be changed without a product revision.

My thought is to have four modes of operation with Compliance Search.

Fully Licensed -- All features work as expected

Evaluation -- All features work fully and all work is performed (so that the time it takes can be fairly evaluated) but after the first 10 result documents, all the results are obscured and unusable. This is the key you'd get from the download site.

Final Evaluation -- This is a key which can only be given out by me after a real conversation and a commitment from a customer that if it really does work like I say, they'll purchase it. They just need to be sure it does what it says it does in the evaluation mode. I really don't expect to give these out very often, if at all. Perhaps they can also be used for customers who pay through purchase orders. These keys will work exactly like a fully licensed key, but will self destruct in "n" days. Since I can set "n" to any value I want when I produce the key, it gives me flexibility.

Invalid or Expired Key -- The keys have built in recursive safeguards so that if someone does attempt to change part of them, they self-validate. There are a couple of parts in the key where a decent cracker could figure out (if he had a few different keys to look at) what appears to indicate some of the restrictions. Changing those reasonably easy to find parts however, would be detected and would invalidate the key. In this case, operation is just like in the Evaluation mode, but you don't get 10 real results first, and the obfuscation is a bit less kind.

There are  - loading -  comments....

It is tricky to get this rightBy Ben Langhinrichs on 07/15/2005 at 09:37 AM EDT
Generally, it sounds like a good plan. You do need to make cyrstal clear each
and every time that you give an "obscured and unusable" result why you are
doing so. People are stupid... and distracted... and don't read much of
anything they are supposed to read, so you can't assume they will know why it
is happening.

Aside from that, you might want to consider pre-vetting. I don't send any
evaluation license without actually reading it. When people put in gibberish,
I write and tell them we need real information. Of course, the smartest ones
put in non-gibberish that looks real, and I can't usually detect that, but most
seem to tell the truth if I write and ask them to and assure them again that no
salespeople will call. I just tell them the product is too valuable to be
handed out without knowing who is getting it. It imposes a delay on when they
get a license, but my gut feel is that that does more to eliminate the window
shoppers who would never have bought anything than it does to turn off real

One last thing. Make sure each license has a serial number and do not feel
constrained to give these strictly sequentially. I have changed the key
process a few times over the years, generally to make it more restrictive, and
I skip to some discontinous place and start making keys from there. That way,
I can change the rules and internally say "If the serial number is between
23000 and 25000, this restriction is in place". While it sounds complicated,
it allows me to do various special restrictions as circumstances require. It
also, in extreme circumstances, allows me to forbid certain serial numbers, so
a large customer that has not paid can't use any future upgrades (that would
usually be free).

Good luck with the new product. I hope it goes well.
agreed -- to that endBy Andrew Pollack on 07/15/2005 at 10:38 AM EDT
The license itself is unique in each instance. A key can only work for one
customer. In this product's license schema, it actually ties a little tighter
than that as well. Excluding specific keys down the road for upgrades would be
easily done, though I have to say I've never had to do it.
My own thoughts on this are...By Brian Benz on 07/22/2005 at 04:23 PM EDT
Sounds like you've changed your tune since we last discussed this issue! I
believe your stance at that time was that everything should be easily copied,
and if it's really any good then the people who copied will like it, and
they'll figure out some way to pay you for something or other later.....Now
your ideas sound a little more extreme than mine were at the time....what
A different subject, actually -- and I still hold that opinionBy Andrew Pollack on 07/22/2005 at 09:49 PM EDT
We were "discussing" presentations. It was and is my belief that a
presentation at a show should be packed full on the slides with detail -- so
that the presentation, when downloaded, retained its value. Customers are
generated from that goodwill, not requiring them to contact you and start a
sales process before they get future benefit from the presentation. Your view,
as I recall, was that it was better to make bullet point presentations so that
the show had to pay you to do the presentation next time, and so that your
material's value was still tied to you in such a way that giving it away did
not detract from someone needing your help actually calling and hiring you.

I don't find this at all the same thing.
My own thoughts on this are...By Brian Benz on 07/25/2005 at 12:09 PM EDT
My approach was to make slide presentations that make it as easy as possible
for me to present them. There's a difference between that and intentionally
making them hard to copy.

How is this approach you described in the last comment different from selling
your product? Based on your assumptions about presentations, would you not
generate similar goodwill and customers by providing an excellent feature-rich
product that is easily copied?
Its a question of fitness for purpose.By Andrew Pollack on 07/25/2005 at 02:24 PM EDT
There inherent difference is fitness for purpose. When you pay to go to a
show, the presentation is presumably paid for in full. That is to say, you hae
no obligation to buy more, give more information, or otherwise take any steps.
What you're buying is the presentation.

I believe by not providing the full value of the presentation -- on purpose --
you are not fulfilling the expected arrangement between you, the conference
sponsors, and the participants.

My approach in that case is to make the presentation as valuable as possible.
I do not believe that this lowers the liklihood that I'll be called in by a
potential new customer in the audience. In fact, I believe it increases it.

To be honest, I find bullet-point slide presentations without real data on the
slides tend to be less organized and are often incomprehensible because they
are written with the assumption that they'll make sense in context with the
speaker. If you write the presentation in a way that it must stand alone,
you're forced to be more organized, more succinct, and more structured.

A product trial, on the otherhand is another matter. There is no expectation
on the part of the person trying the software that they are entitled to
anything other than the chance to try the software. To gain full use,
legitimately, they know they will have to make a purchase. Thus, my goal is to
make it as easy as possible for someone to determine the true value of the
software in their circumstance. At the same time, I've found that there are
too many people who take advantage of the trial software for longer periods.

90% of NCT Search sales occurr as a result of the trial period ending shortly.
Frequently, I am asked for (and usually give) additional trial keys for more
time as the purchase order is cut.

Compliance search is an "occasional use" kind of product. Its very helpful
when needed, but not needed daily. I review of the number of B.S. entries in
the download form will tell you how many people tend to be dishonest at this
stage. So, it becomes a question of drawing line.
My own thoughts on this are...By Brian Benz on 07/25/2005 at 04:13 PM EDT
But if a person who never went to the conference or paid the conference fee can
download your slides and gets the same information for free that the conference
attendes and organizers paid for, isn't that kind of ripping off the people who

On the other hand, if attendees see someone present information at a conference
that they can't get elsewhere with "no obligation to buy more, give more
information, or otherwise take any steps", that seems to me to better fulfill
the obligation to all conference parties, regardless of the slide content or
it's organization.

Same for trial software, I suppose. What you're buying is a solution. Giving
people free access to something others have paid for and you have invested time
in only works if you get something back for it sometime. And they'll forget
about where they got it from if you just give it to them without reminding them
and making them come back to pay for it someday.
I suppose that depends on the value add in the contentBy Andrew Pollack on 07/25/2005 at 04:37 PM EDT
I would never recommend giving away your hard earned secrets. If the value
built into the presentation is so hard to replace that it has resellable value,
then it is in fact a product in and of itself.

Under those circumstances, you would treat it as a product and limit its use in
a free download. Of course, if the presentation was developed for a conference
who paid you for it, you have to negotiate in advance the future use rights for
that presentation as part of the deal to speak for them.

For example, I almost always insist on retaining the rights to perform the
presentation, but allow the conference to distribute it in printed or
unmodified on a cd.

I suppose if I had something so valuable that having it reproduced would cause
me damage I wouldn't present it. I wouldn't publish the core source to NCT
Search, for example. I would (and have) published code that shows some of the
techniques though.

I think you have to decide though, before you take on a presentation, which it
My own thoughts on this are...By Brian Benz on 07/26/2005 at 01:24 PM EDT
The big question - Do you disclose the arrangement that this is non-exclusive
content available elsewhere, to the audience, who are ultimately paying for the
organizers, the conference, and the speaker?

Getting back to the original topic of the licensing, I guess we can agree that
it's up to the individual to decide what they want to do with their
information, whether it's a presentation or software, or whatever.
Absolutely. Every presentation I giveBy Andrew Pollack on 07/26/2005 at 01:30 PM EDT
includes, on the slides, the location of my website where the presentation can
be downloaded. I also say this to the audience, being clear that I do not
require registration or dna samples to access them.

Since the slides are given to the conference in advance, they are also well
aware of this policy. It has never been an issue.
My own thoughts on this are...By Ben Rose on 07/29/2005 at 03:50 AM EDT
On the software thing, I don't think you're being strict at all. Allowing any
kind of evaluation, even a limited one, will undoubtedly reduce sales potential.

I'm in the target market for this kind of this product and, undoubtedly, if I
could download a free evaluation that pulled the results I required without
paying a penny then it's unlikely you'd ever see any licensing fees. Not
because I'm dishonest, but purely because things are so hard to get signed off
in big corporate world.

Technically one could do a FT search of all the DB's manually and that's what
the product would compete with. Add in a domain search and it's even easier for
me to search reasonably well without your product. I guess it depends whether
we were trying to make a legal defence or just making "best endeavours" to
supply requested information.

Getting me to search manually is going to cost the company maybe £200 per day
in salary/benefits, but they could give the task to junior staff if that was a
problem. Depending on the volume of data, it couldn't take so long.

To justify buying your tool there would have to be appreciable cost savings.
I'm guessing that installing it is quick, but it would need time to create
search indexes whereas a domain index could, in theory, already be in place.
So, at best, you might save me a couple of man-days of costs...and the company
is paying me to be here already.

I'm presenting this information so you can think about the price of the product
compared to the costs without it. This will allow you to see the likelihood of
me getting sign-off for a purchase order. The lower the likelihood of sign-off,
the more secure your key system needs to be.

Also, will this be licensed for life or for a timed period?

I personally think that your evaluation should show the number of search
results but not actually the detail of those results, one should have to pay
for that. Would I want to pay for a Directory Enquiries search if the number I
required wasn't listed? No. But how much would I pay to get the number after
I'd confirmed they had it?

So yes, if I could download your product and, in a short time, produce a hit
count for the phrase I was searching for then you've got a chance of a license
sale, especially if the alternatives will take days and my deadlines are tight.
I'd say the chances of a repeat purchase are high too.

A perfect example is the excellent Ecora documentation system (
They allow you to document a single environment during a time limited trial
period. I used to work as a consultant rolling out Notes/Domino in SMB
environments, sometimes twice a week.

I'd go on-site, install the Notes infrastructure, request an Ecora evaluation
on behalf of the customer, get the license key email and then document the work
I'd just done in about 10mins using their tool...for free. It saved my employer
a day's work which could be spent on another job. We'd charge 2 days for the
install and one day for documentation but I could do 3 jobs in six days!

How would your product license work from the perspective of a consultant called
in to do a compliance search on a customer's system?

So, my summary:

Limit the eval - In corporate world it's very hard to buy something you can get
for free. Do people license Nero now you can burn CDs for free in WinXP? I know
we don't, even though Nero is loads better.

Time limit the license - In many cases this is going to be a short term
requirement for legal purposes. Make me buy it again next time.

Limit the users - Lock the license key to the server name if possible, nobody's
going to rename a server to use this for free.

Just my views from corporate world. Happy to discuss further offline if you



We're on the same page, mostly.By Andrew Pollack on 07/29/2005 at 11:41 AM EDT
To that end:

1. Yes, the license and the eval are limited to the specific server itself,
and to the time it will work even for that.

2. The usefulness if the eval is extremely limited in that you only get real
results for the first 10 hits. Enough to see how it works, not enough to
obviate the need to purchase.

3. HOWEVER the -value- of the eval is intact in that it still takes the full
realistic time to do its job so you get an honest evaluation.

4. Load time is VERY fast. It uses the build into full text indexes, not its
own index. From that standpoint its a huge time server.

As far as price -- well, I've already sold 3 at $1500 in "pre-release" and all
are very happy. So I'd say there's a market. I'm sure there's a bigger market
at $100 -- but not enough bigger to be worth it. The time it takes to make the
sale is the biggest cost factor I have, really. I don't want to discuss a
single "one time" transaction with a new customer for less than $1000 --
there's too much paperwork, 1099 forms at the end of the year, puchase order,

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