Originally Published: Wednesday, 8 August 2001 Author: Mark Miller
Published to: opinion_articles/opinion Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Big software companies lose their minds!

Linux.com corresponent Mark Miller has some views on big software companies.

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Thugs in the marketplace

Here in Portland (and at other times in Seattle) I have heard the most amazing advertisements on the radio. Perhaps you have as well. They come from the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a front group for the likes of Microsoft, Apple and Adobe. The amazing thing isn't the fact that they want you to get into compliance with their restrictive license requirements but the way that they threaten their customers! The details can be read elsewhere if you haven't experienced this marketing thuggery for yourself. I wish to concentrate on some larger issues that arise from this tactic.

Marketing 101

One of the most basic marketing maxims teaches (and I'm paraphrasing here) "don't piss off your customers". The BSA ads are nothing more than thinly veiled (but empty) threats of criminal retribution for being out of compliance with software licenses that give all the power to the manufacturers and none to the user. Of course, if you have chosen to pirate thousands of dollars of overpriced code then you should get the hammer of the law brought down upon you. More likely your failure to comply is an administrative faux pas. It is very easy to misplace or lose all of those little certificates. I helped a government facility to hunt down and organize those bits of paper once. It took weeks to associate each one to a unique machine. Furthermore, it was not a trivial task to make sure each machine didn't have a duplicate copy already installed on another. When you have hundreds of machines mistakes will be made. After all of the expense and hassle of auditing compliance with these legal bombshells, some organizations are faced with spending thousands of dollars to replace lost or missing paperwork. Note to marketing: having to pay twice for the same thing makes consumers mad.

Is corporate power going too far?

While I can't condone violence, I can understand why anti-globalists are nervous. Corporate power is being exercised in the lives of people to an extent not seen before. Sure, companies have abused workers since before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution but modern computers allow control like never before. I mean really, being arrested for pointing out that a company's security claims don't hold water is unreasonable. Hey, sue him, it's the American Way but don't arrest him for proving your product isn't very secure despite claims to the contrary in marketing materials. Going farther back we see corporate power trying to muffle more non-US people with US laws. The entire DeCSS flap is about northern Europeans working out a way to play DVDs on a Linux computer. Why would they go to all of this trouble? To work around the absolute control the motion picture industry has over who can play their products. Not happy to sell DVDs to all comers they want to create artificially high profits by limiting supply and therefore boosting revenue. Some countries are not too happy about the different costs for the same materials in different regions and are investigating.

It's the American Way to circumvent power

The funny thing about this attempt to quash circumvention of controls on fair use is that once upon a time America had to do exactly this to survive. Back in the days when the textile industry was The Big Thing, it was illegal for anyone to export textile making information from England. But hey, we're Americans, so we thumbed our noses at the King and smuggled the plans out in the head of an engineer who returned to America and started an industry that quickly eclipsed the rest of the world. The modern trend toward preventing reverse engineering and tinkering with the works of others, particularly in the software arena can only slow innovation and concentrate money and power into the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

Sharing software is the natural way of programmers

Read any history about the early hackers and you will see two things clearly. The first is that software is meant to be shared. At first it was a must because nothing really existed. Each new hack added something to what already existed. Each hack was a sign of the prowess of the writer and was therefore something to be proud of and displayed to all. Of course, Bill Gates didn't like sharing software back then either. His letter to the hacker community about why programmers shouldn't share code is an icon of the era. Back then magazines were full of code to explore and use and learn from. Operating system upgrades were freely distributed. My first computer was an Atari 800. After I purchased the original DOS for it I don't believe I ever paid for another copy. I never have spent much for software (except when I was forced to buy a copy of Word so I could submit resumes that way UGGGGHHHHH!!!). I simply did without. Sure, I could bang together a short BASIC program or copy a listing in from Dr Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia, or other computer magazine but that was about it.

Then came Linux

One day I discovered Linux. Oh I was primed for this. Years of cruising SIMTEL drooling over free software to do this and that and reading of this thing called the Internet. Man I wanted to get access to those things. It was powerful. Then I bought a book. Many have come to Linux through books like Slackware Unleashed. A working copy of a collection of Unix software. Ever since getting a taste of a Unix machine (one by Fortune, one by Onyx if I recall; anyone remember them?) I was interested in learning about this arcane /dev stuff. Now I had it. Sure, my CDROM didn't work but I had all this software! Compilers I had only imagined because I could never afford to buy them, lex and yacc, interpreters, editors, the great quips of FORTUNE! I soon discovered that anything that didn't work was due to my lack of knowledge. All I had to do was learn some small bit of information and presto, there it was. Once again the open sharing of code was helping me to learn and accomplish my limited goals without making me spend a lot of money.

But what about making money?

The need for business to make money is very real. People need to eat. Beyond that people need to fulfill larger wants. The want to do something worthwhile. The want to have a more comfortable life. There is a big gap between having basic food and housing and having a comfortable life. Traditionally, business makes money by providing a product or service that is superior to it's competitors, not by threatening it's customers. Oddly enough, I have spent more money on Free/Open Source Software than I have on closed software! Sure, I could download the core of any distribution, but the value added bits like getting a CDROM instead of spending time downloading and having printed information on setup and operation was a compelling reason to put out the ducats. Closed software could take the hint. Imagine how a company like Adobe could enlist the aid of others to make it's products truly secure and extend them to devices and platforms that they couldn't justify internally. Things like readers for blind users or platforms with less of a customer base such as Linux on PowerPC. These added value services would make for a pretty good revenue stream and create a positive image for the company. Fighting your customers is a sure way to extinction. Modifying your strategy to flow smoothly on the wave of customer needs is the way to riches.

Paying attention

Despite all of the talk about how the internet and computers are going to create a new marketplace, we continue to see big businesses trying to force customers into the same old pidgeon holes. Heavy copyright protection schemes in the 80's failed because of customer distaste for them. Despite efforts by Microsoft and others to prevent it, customers are growing smarter about their technology. Even my wife, who isn't into operating system wars, just wants to use her computer. Trouble is she sees Microsoft as unreliable and inflexible. She sees the constant crashes and trouble in configuring her system to be stable and dependable as major negatives. She sees the stranglehold of Microsoft as stopping any real alternative. Ok, Apple would be an alternative for her if they would stop abandoning users (she is still bummed at them for dropping the Apple IIGS with no route out!). When and if Linux ever reaches a point where her quilting software (essentially a specialized CAD program) gets ported over then I'll believe Linux is truly mainstream. If the big companies can't hear users like my wife and straighten up then little companies will have a big window of opportunity to steal their lunch, will they take it? Mark Miller has been tinkering with computers ever since learning BASIC on a timesharing sytem using teletypes with paper tape readers and Hazeltine video terminals. One day he hopes to get good at it.

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