Office 2013: new retail licensing ties suite of apps to just one machine, forever

When I started building PCs from spare parts, mixing and matching to create working machines from many that did not (in true Dr. Frankenstein style), if I wanted Office on any of them I’d just install whichever of the several versions I had that was most compatible.

In those days you could find copies of the Office software several places: new, and at secondhand computer stores, yard sales/flea markets and charity thrift stores.

While it was true that there were legal limitations supposedly in place to prevent me from installing it on more than a few machines, I didn’t care.  I wasn’t burning or making illegal copies of the disks, wasn’t selling machines with the software suite installed on them. I was a geek–buying used computers, fixing/upgrading them for my own use and traveling with them. I wanted Office on them–and, so it was.

Perhaps you bought a copy of Office (Whatever), possibly to upgrade your existing PC. Perhaps later on you either bought or were given another PC that didn’t have that version on it, so you installed what you already had on this just-acquired machine.

Well, according to new reports about Office 2013 found on PCWorld.com, that’s all about to change:

Microsoft confirmed Thursday that a retail copy of Office 2013 is permanently tied to the first PC on which it’s installed, preventing customers from deleting the suite from one machine they own and installing it on another.

The move is a change from past Office end-user licensing agreements (EULAs), experts said, and is another way Microsoft is pushing customers, especially consumers, to opt for new “rent-not-own” subscription plans.

“That’s a substantial shift in Microsoft licensing,” said Daryl Ullman, co-founder and managing director of the Emerset Consulting Group, which specializes in helping companies negotiate software licensing deals. “Let’s be frank. This is not in the consumer’s best interest. They’re paying more than before, because they’re not getting the same benefits as before.”

Prior to Office 2013, which debuted last month, Microsoft’s EULA for retail copies of Office plainly stated that customers could reassign a license when, for example, they replaced an aged PC with a newer model, or the original machine gave out.

“You may reassign the license to a different device any number of times, but not more than one time every 90 days,” stated the EULA for Office Home & Student 2010, the most popular consumer version of that edition. “If you reassign, that other device becomes the ‘licensed device.’ If you retire the licensed device due to hardware failure, you may reassign the license sooner.”

That language showed in the EULAs of all retail versions of Office 2010, including Home & Business, which targets small businesses, and Professional, another business-oriented suite with even more applications.

Microsoft modified the EULA for the same editions of Office 2013, however, eliminating the suite’s flexibility by striking the clause about reassigning the license. In several other places in the EULAs, those same EULAs also stated, “Our software license is permanently assigned to the licensed computer.”

On Thursday, Microsoft confirmed that once a retail copy of Office 2013 is installed on a PC and activated—the process of entering a 25-character “key” to prove the software was legitimately obtained—it cannot be uninstalled and then re-installed on another machine owned by the customer.

Via email, Computerworld asked Microsoft, “Once an Office 2013 retail license is assigned through activation to a PC, it’s connected TO THAT PC, correct? Just as is Windows. That then means it cannot be reassigned to ANOTHER PC owned by the same individual, correct?”

The response from Microsoft’s public relations firm was simply, “Correct.”

Another question asked whether, under the retail Office 2013 EULA, customers could move the suite—and its license—to a replacement PC when the original was lost, stolen or destroyed. Microsoft reply: “No comment.”

“This is stricter language than was available before,” said Paul DeGroot, principal consultant at Pica Communications, and like Ullman, a licensing guru. “According to this language, if your computer dies, so does your Office license. Microsoft has had that language in place for OEM software in the past, but not for retail licenses.”

OEM software is that pre-installed by a computer maker, or OEM (for “original equipment manufacturer”), such as Windows or a factory-installed copy of Office. OEM licenses differ in many aspects from copies purchased at retail, including shunting support to the OEM, and generally come with more restrictive rights.

The implications of Microsoft change were clear to Ullman. He posed a scenario where a customer had installed Office 2013 on a two-year-old Windows 7 PC, then later wanted to move the suite to a newly-purchased machine. Under the EULA, that would not be allowed. Instead, the customer would need to purchase another copy of Office 2013 for the new computer.

“If you want to buy a new computer, you’ve just thrown away the cost of [that first copy of] Office,” Ullman said.

And he had not doubt about why Microsoft modified the EULA for Office 2013.

“This is no surprise to me,” Ullman said. “Microsoft has been doing the same kinds of licensing policy changes for corporations. And they’ve brought these same [policies] down to the consumer level.

“They’re very smart about maneuvering or changing licensing to meet a business goal,” Ullman continued. “As I’ve said before, I see Microsoft as a licensing company first, and second as a technology company. It’s not that they don’t have good technology, but they’re driven by, consumed by licensing.”

It’s unclear how, or even whether, Microsoft will enforce the install-once restriction of Office 2013. Ullman expected that the company would use its activation technology to do so, as it does to ensure Windows remains tied to a specific PC.

Historically, the activation process has been somewhat relaxed, with Microsoft often allowing customers to reinstall Windows on new hardware, or radically-changed hardware, after a telephone call. Yesterday, for instance, Microsoft said that if a customer’s computer crashed, “They are allowed to reinstall Office on that same computer [and] if there are problems with this process, customers can contact Microsoft technical support.”

But the company may also more strictly administer Office 2013 than it did Office 2010. When asked how the Office 2013 EULA would be enforced, Microsoft dodged the question, and instead replied with boilerplate of, “Software piracy is a substantial global issue, and we implement a number of protocols to prevent unlawful software distribution.”

It doesn’t take an expert to guess Microsoft’s motivation for the tougher line. “They want to drive people to the new Office 365,” said Jeff Muscarella, a partner with Atlanta-based consultancy NPI.

The rest of the article discusses Office 365–its cost, merits, and what Microsoft’s intentions might be going forward. Also, the possible reasoning behind why the company has changed its policies on the Office suite.

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