Dangling Dongles


By Steve Oppenheimer

(January 2005)

It all started when I wanted to check out a new version of a host program that required a dongle. I needed to work at the EM office, using my PowerBook, and when I went to plug in the dongle, I couldn’t find it. So I booted up another host program that doesn’t require a hardware key, and I got my job done. Still, until I found that doggone dongle (weeks later), my legal, registered software was useless. I was furious!

Why use dongles? Manufacturers disagree on that but most admit that challenge-and-response copy protection is a lot easier to hack than a dongle. So dongles are seemingly here to stay until something better is developed.

Okay, then, why not use dongles? The universal complaints are:

  • Because there is no universal standard, you may need several dongles and a USB hub in order to use programs from multiple developers.
    If you lose or break most dongles, your software is useless until you can get a replacement. Replacing a dongle is not always free, and you’ve already paid for the software, but the biggest problem is downtime.
  • As it turns out, all dongles are not created equal: Pace’s iLok has gone a long way to answer the complaints about dongles. Multiple licenses can be kept on one iLok key and can be managed from the iLok.com Web site. If you buy a second iLok, you can move licenses for free between iLoks via the iLok.com database, or you can store them all on one key and keep the other as a spare. If every dongle-protected program you use employs an iLok, that solves the problem of multiple dongles.

Several companies, however, use less-capable dongles. In effect, they pay an engineer to reinvent the wheel, and users are stuck with multiple protruding pieces of plastic. Reliable sources tell me that half of all tech-support calls for one major software developer that uses a proprietary dongle are about dongle-related problems. That probably costs a lot more than the iLok license fees!

There remains the problem of downtime when you lose or break a dongle. Again, Pace has done a good job of dealing with that, although the system needs refining. With Pace’s $30-per-year Zero Down Time (ZDT) service, you just go to iLok.com and download temporary two-week licenses into your spare key. That way, you are up and running in minutes. You still have to restore your permanent licenses, and that’s where refinement is needed. Some developers allow Pace to obtain your new permanent licenses for you, which is ideal. A few companies, however, require you to contact them directly, which complicates things. I think many people would pay more for ZDT if all registered iLok licenses were automatically restored. One saved session pays for that.

So developers, if you insist on using a dongle, do your paying customers a favor: use iLok, and let Pace work with its ZDT customers directly to restore missing licenses. You can protect your software and be kind to your customers, too.