VRPC users on anti-piracy system mischiefBy Chris Williams. Published: 12th May 2005, 20:09:56 | Permalink | Printable
Who you gonna call?Users have this week revealed their struggles against the anti-piracy system in emulator VirtualRiscPC. Its publisher, VirtualAcorn say they are only a phone call away if a problem develops.
The copy protection mechanism in VirtualRiscPC works like this: Once installed onto a computer, VirtualRiscPC requires an unlock code to run. These codes are obtained by contacting VirtualAcorn with details of your VirtualRiscPC copy, and after entering a valid code into your copy of the RiscPC emulator, the software locks itself down to the machine running VirtualRiscPC. If the software believes it has been copied to a different machine, it refuses to run unless a valid unlock code is provided. As some users have discovered, minor changes to the hardware setup of the computer, such as using a wireless network card, can accidentally trigger this protection mechanism - much to their frustration. Similarly, if the emulator needs reinstalling, the user must provide the unlock code.
Implanting such an anti-piracy scheme into your software is understandable, from the publisher's point of view, seeing as 29 percent of software in Britain is believed to have been pirated, totaling £1 billion in lost revenue. Software piracy is not unknown in the tiny, cosy world of RISC OS, either. However, similar anti-piracy systems, such as that used in Cerilica's Vantage although later removed, have back fired and caused no end of pain for the end user. In Vantage's case, the software was rendered all unlock codes invalid after a point in time and punters found they couldn't reach Cerilica to issue them new access codes - raising the question of what can users possibly do if the company issuing unlock codes goes bust or AWOL.
"My opinion of software developers using poorly developed 'release codes' which stop legitimate uses from continuing to use their purchased product, is not a high one," commented Phil Spiegelhalter, a VirtualRiscPC user recently stung by the anti-piracy protection system.
Is anybody home?
Charles Hope owns a Microdigital Alpha, the first laptop to feature VirtualRiscPC - launched 2 years ago at a Wakefield show. Earlier this week, his Microsoft Windows laptop crashed, taking out VirtualRiscPC with it, which required him to reinstall it. Disaster struck when Charles couldn't find his unlock code, or even remember if he'd been given one as he claims his laptop had been supplied unlocked. On contacting VirtualAcorn, he was told that his machine wasn't on their records and that he'd have to contact Microdigital for a copy of the unlock code.
As far as we're aware at time of writing, Charles claims that he has been unable to reach anyone at Microdigital. He told us that VirtualAcorn boss Aaron Timbrell "has been very helpful so I have no wish to criticise him.
"'Upset' certainly applies to Microdigital. They seem impossible to contact when you need them. I had read that Omega deposit payers had found the same, but didn't expect to get caught myself", Charles added. He says he'll have to reinvest in a new copy of VirtualRiscPC at the Wakefield show.
Aaron explained to us: "MicroDigital has records of all the Alpha customers, along with the machine serial numbers, unlock codes etc. We don't have this information. I've done my best to help the customer, but unfortunately he can't find where he put the unlock code he was given.
"I have been through the records we do have, the customer isn't on our database. I have also been through the few Alpha unlock codes that we do have recorded looking for the Alpha serial number but I can't find a match."
Another Alpha user who had problems with VirtualRiscPC some time ago was advised by Microdigital's David Atkins to reinstall the software. The user told us: "At that point I asked for the unlock code and [David] gave it to me over the phone." Another Alpha user confirmed that he was handed an unlock code from Microdigital after he had to reinstall the emulator, and made a safe written note of the code afterwards.
The delay in installing the emulator and receiving an unlock code for the software can be vital for people relying on their laptops for professional work, especially if a system fails or changes its hardware configuration at a crucial moment. In March this year, VirtualAcorn were unable to provide unlock codes for almost a fortnight, due to an office move.
Richard Nevill, a user who has demonstrated VirtualRiscPC to numerous other punters, commented: "I don't think that the registration system for VirtualRiscPC-SE or Adjust is user friendly, especially for those of us who use external WiFi cards, or change networking hardware on a regular basis, for instance. People have not been impressed with my promised demonstrations which aborted as I had forgotten to bring along my networking card - most embarrasing."
We asked Aaron of VirtualAcorn if he felt his company had a fast turnaround on providing unlock codes to end users. He replied: "Does it mean do we provide codes over the phone? If so, yes. Does it mean do we check our e-mail on a regular basis for codes? If so, yes. Does it mean we have records of all complete (i.e. non OEM) copies of VRPC along with the unlock codes and serial numbers (and customer details if purchased directly from us, or if the registration card has been returned). If so then again, yes."
Adding that customers should call him if a problem arises, Aaron continued: "If a customer has a problem then they need to speak to me so I can try and sort it out. However in the case of early Alphas where MicroDigital supplied the OS and bundled the lot together we don't have the details, I can do my best to help a customer out but they will need to contact MicroDigital."
VirtualRiscPC was first seen at Wakefield 2003, officially running RISC OS 4 for the first time under emulation on a Microdigital supplied Windows laptop. In July 2003, punters witnessed the emulator running on a desktop machine, and a standalone version was eventually released in September later that year. Now, the software is bundled by various dealers on a range of PC kit and can match a StrongARM RiscPC on a typical 1.6GHz PC processor. The emulator has been credited for bringing ex-users back to the RISC OS platform and encouraging ex-developers to re-release their software.
Microdigital were unavailable for comment.
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