When licensing software, should I require customers to activate my software evaluations?

By Mike Wozniak  |  Software Licensing Tips

Posted:  November 4


There are many things to consider when creating a trial/evaluation version of your software application, including a standard cost/benefit analysis to determine if requiring your prospects to activate the evaluation version is something you should enforce.

What are some general things to consider when creating an evaluation version?

We previously touched upon some of the high-level considerations in our blog post entitled Licensing Model Considerations, under the section heading “How about placing a ‘Try Now!’ button before the ‘Buy Now!’ button?” We would first like to expand on some of the evaluation considerations presented in that blog post:

  • No licensing system is completely bulletproof. A determined hacker will likely find some way to bypass any licensing mechanism put in place, given enough time, desire, and effort.
  • Just like a movie trailer is meant to get you interested in seeing a full-length feature film, the point of the evaluation is to let the customer see if your software is a good fit for their needs. When you do not require activation for the evaluation, perhaps the safest approach is to create a separate evaluation installer that has some features changed or removed. Doing this or any of the following might encourage an evaluator to purchase your application after experiencing the evaluation:
    • Display trial-message dialog boxes or other messages throughout the evaluation
    • Watermark/modify the output of the evaluation so they are reminded this is an evaluation version
    • Keep some type of “secret sauce” hidden from use until the customer purchases a full retail version of your software
  • If offering a non-activated trial version and creating separate installers for the trial version and the full retail version, a simple build script could easily automate this process and create two installers when you update your code.
  • Similarly, you can use a single build/installer and conditionally enable/disable certain features or functionality based on whether the software is running as a trial.

Will evaluations that require activation deter people from using your software?

Some people believe that it is important to remove all potential stopping points in a customer’s path:

  • You may want a potential customer to be able to easily experience an evaluation of the application without being potentially hindered or “turned off” by an activation process.
  • A prospect may have lost the license information to activate the evaluation, or it could have somehow become separated from the evaluation installer. They may not know where to go to get a evaluation license key and will likely give up easily.
  • A happy customer may give an evaluation copy of your application to a friend. Wouldn’t it be great for this new potential customer to experience the application as an evaluation version quite easily, possibly leading to an impulse purchase?

Is it really more secure to require evaluations that are activated?

Let’s face it. Any computer on which your software may run should be presumed to be an untrusted environment:

  • You have no idea what type of debugger or other tools may be used to tamper with your software during the evaluation period.
  • You have less control when an evaluation starts without activation. The activation process requires some type of validation with a central licensing server, giving you more control to limit access.
  • Allowing your evaluation to run in a virtual environment without activation is very insecure, especially because snapshotting technology allows a user to easily reset the operating system to a pre-installed state, thereby enabling the user to also reset the trial period as many times as they want. If you do not require activation of your evaluation, you may want to use your licensing vendor’s tools to block the software from running in a virtual environment.

How does managing evaluation licenses affect my business processes and staff?

When activation is not required:

  • Your prospective customers will have uninterrupted use of the evaluation version, potentially leading to an expedited purchase of the full retail version. What’s more, the absence of a required activation allows you and your staff to focus on other important tasks, as there is no requirement to manage the distribution and maintenance of trial licenses.
  • Any type of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system can capture leads from your website using standard HTML web forms. You can then automate the email campaigns to these prospects without needing to integrate any separate licensing system for generating evaluation license keys to give to the prospects.

When activation is required:

  • You could require that the prospect first talk to a sales representative before receiving an evaluation license, giving an excuse for a human-to-human touch point. During this interaction, you can find out the customer’s needs for future sales and marketing initiatives.
  • The evaluation license key generation process may require more time by your staff instead of completely automating this process during the evaluation request form. Of course, it is always possible to customize the evaluation request form to automatically generate the license if this type of investment is made up front.
  • The software can have an automated connection to a central licensing server to track usage of the evaluation and provide this valuable information to your sales team.

How much control do you want over who evaluates your software?

  • If you want to maintain control of your Intellectual Property, you may want to qualify all prospects before allowing them to evaluate your software. This might also allow you to limit your competitors from seeing your software.
  • During the qualification call, the sales rep can determine which feature(s) the prospect needs to evaluate and give them a license key just for those specific features, making the evaluation process easier for the customer.
  • Since the evaluation software is running in an untrusted environment (as mentioned previously), requiring activation may give you more control over them resetting the evaluation period back to the beginning.

What additional costs may be involved in requiring customers to activate evaluations?

If you are using a licensing service to automate software activations, you may incur a fee from this service because it will be providing the same automated activation logic for evaluation versions of your software as it does for paid licenses (it doesn’t differentiate). You should inquire about the fee structure with your licensing vendor.

There may be some up-front costs integrating the evaluation license generation process with your company’s CRM or other evaluation request form, to save on the manual labor of your sales team generating evaluation licenses after they review the customer’s evaluation request.

How can I automate issuing evaluation licenses which require activation?

It is possible to automate the generation of evaluation licenses for prospects using a custom script on your website or through integration with your CRM to save time. Will you require customers to submit their data and wait for your sales team to approve the request to generate a new evaluation key? If not, how will you limit a user from making multiple requests? Consider this: With the abundant availability of free e-mail services (Yahoo! mail, Google mail, Hotmail, etc.), a new e-mail address can be created within a matter of minutes. If your evaluations require activation and you limit evaluation requests to unique email addresses, someone with the evaluation can easily set up a new e-mail address, request a license for the evaluation, then keep extending the same evaluation on the same PC – unless you put special logic in the application to only allow a single evaluation period that cannot be extended.


Allowing the evaluation version of your software to run without activation is an ideal consideration if you want prospects to have easy access to your software, your time or budget is limited, you don’t need close control over who is running your trials, and you are happy with just keeping honest people honest.

Requiring activation of your evaluation may reduce the number of people who get to experience your software and may cost you more in licensing fees and time/resources, but it can offer you greater control over the use of your software.

Hopefully the above information will give you some food for thought when considering both options for your software evaluations. Team SoftwareKey has over 20 years of experience in protecting thousands of applications and we are always available to discuss how to best architect your application’s licensing requirements. Please feel free to contact us anytime!

About the Author

Mike Wozniak is the founder of SoftwareKey.com and responsible for marketing, content and product strategy. When he isn't plotting new ways to help customers solve licensing and business automation challenges, he likes to travel and entertain guests who come to visit the Orlando area.

Mike Wozniak


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