The future of software? (from a user perspective)
June 26th, 2010 by ravi

There are two unrelated success stories that I wish to tie together in this bit, and if I am successful and justified in doing so, then you too might worry as I do about the future of software.

First, I must clear the air: I am a staunch Free Software advocate. And specifically, I take the Richard Stallman position when it comes to Free vs Open Software. And towards the end of this post, I will try to reconcile that position with the worries raised below.

Now back to the story of the two successes. The first, MacHeist, is small, but only in comparison. MacHeist is an affair that occurs a few times a year where users solve puzzles on their way to a booty of fire sale priced Mac software. The operation is run by a few clever lads (and ladies?), sells software worth hundreds of dollars for as low as $50 in total, and nets a handsome profit (reputed to run into the hundreds of thousands) for the organisers.

When the MacHeist gets going (and I admit to having “participated” in one or two) one criticism that is often heard is that the developers of the software are not getting quite the fair shake, and that selling software at such unsustainably low rates devalues the effort that goes into their creation. I think both criticisms are legitimate.

The second success story is a big one: Google. A company that hires brilliant engineers to turn out complex software products, but then turns around and gives most of these away for free, preferring instead to make money by selling advertising. So much so that the reliable purveyors of quotable statements are wont to note that Google is not a search technology company, but an advertising one.

As a Free Software fanatic, you might think that all this would warm my heart, but it does not. To understand why, I will refer to the difference that Stallman draws between Free Software (“free as in free speech”), and Open Software which is “free as in beer”. Whereas Free Software, through the terms of the GNU Public License, fosters a culture of public ownership and ubiquitous contribution, Open Software in its paradoxical naive pragmatism (of gaining usage by adopting a more “liberal” license) undervalues the act of development making it no more than a form of cheap labour.

The claims in the previous paragraph are arguable, and argue about it we should. The point of this post however is to consider the impact of this cheap or free software on users.

Consider my recent experience with a remote file access application called Flow. Flow is a very useful application with an impressive set of features and a more than decent interface. Flow retails for $25, a fair price for the functionality it promises, but it was also recently given away as part of a MacHeist “nanobundle”, the popularity of which has led to a warning from the makers of Flow, ExtendMac, that they are swamped with feedback and that all users (including ones like me who did not acquire it through MacHeist) should exercise a bit of patience while we await a response.

Patience, we have been told, is the virtue of an ass, and my experience with contacting ExtendMac tends to justify the comparison (of me) with the maligned beast! More than two months ago I submitted a report of a problem with Flow that was making it close to unusable: the application would hang mid-way through a file transfer and provide me no means to recover from it. Not even an option to cancel the transfer. This is just one of many issues. Here’s another: the application hangs upon encountering a symbolic link on the remote host. I have since reported these problems two more times and promptly received a canned response. But ExtendMac has been reticent to communicate further on this matter.

If indeed the MacHeist fire sale and ensuing volume of users makes it impossible for ExtendMac to address the issues of its users, then there is a good bit of legitimacy to the criticism that such sales both shortchange the developer and ultimately harm the end user.

The other, larger point of the matter is learnt from the example of Google. Having separated the source of their income (advertising) and their source of value (software), they are now wedded to “web apps”, applications that often coerce (though to Google’s credit, not always) you to using Google supplied browser based interfaces (so that money-making advertising can be targeted at you) irrespective of how well suited they are to your needs (recently I wrote about Google Voice, where the lack of a desktop client severely hampers the usability of the product). Better, I think, a choice between: software as a public good as envisioned by Stallman; or software as a valuable product solving a user’s needs in the best possible way, and hence worthy of charging a fee, as seen by Apple.

Update: in the spirit of the philosopher Peter Singer, who follows up his meditations on ethical eating with practical recipes, a recommendation: for a powerful GPL licensed free alternative to Flow, take a look at CyberDuck.

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