Monday, March 4, 2013

Software is Never Free

Just like the Merchant of Venice
we all need our pound of flesh.
Being a software entrepreneur is a difficult business to be involved with.  I spend much of my time writing software and then the remainder selling it to others.  It is difficult and I could not think of anything else I would rather be doing.  Still I do have one big challenge and it is the same challenge all types of creative people are facing.  It appears that in this internet world of abundance they do not have to pay for books, music, or software.  This week I would like to explain why software is not free.  Someone has to pay. 

I believe that this notion that software should be free was spawned from the Linux movement during the Dot.Com boom days.  Countless pixels have been spent expressing the view that software should be free and that copy writes for things like books, movies, and software were quaint notions from the pre-internet days.  I think it was professionally and culturally poisonous for the software industry.  Please let me explain.  

Software, music and books are the one of the few things we have not figured out how to automate.  The creative process necessary to build them are labor intensive and imprecise.  These processes are also prone to spectacular failure.  This is why when you check the CHAOS report it is clear why many of the software projects are challenged or failing.  It is hard to match the expectations of the people paying for the software to the abilities of the people writing that software. 

Along came the Linux movement with the religious fanaticism of the Opus Dei.  Linux was a version of the Unix software program which was developed by AT&T during its monopoly period of the 1950's and 1960's.  What made it unique is that it was freely distributed over the internet via download.   This meant that instead of paying a license for an operating system for a computer it was free.  Companies sprang up to support this ecosystem of Unix and provide a means to cash in on all the companies who didn't want to pay for software but didn't know how to use it.  So the tradeoff for a company was no cost for software but huge fees for labor to maintain and customize the software.   This spawned a system of software which is used today in the corporate world; Oracle Databases, Java Development, and PHP for web development.

I suspect that the Linux movement had to happen because companies like IBM and Microsoft made a very good living off charging people to use their product.  To software developers who tend to be an iconoclastic lot having free and open software was a nirvana of sorts.  Upgrades were based on the needs of the community and weren't subject to a corporate project manager.  Finally, the open source Linux movement emphasized the technical ability of the developer to make changes to core systems and improve the product.  Thus, free software seemed to be the best of all worlds; developers judged on merit, free products which respond to real needs, and something that was technologically elegant. 

Of course, something was missing.  Since these free products we constructed by engineers for engineers, for non-technical people they were impossible to use.  MS-DOS from Microsoft abandoned command line prompts for the windows interface for a reason.   They wanted more people to use their systems.  The Linux movement still used the command line.  In addition, major manufacturers did not create Linux personal computers so they had to be created by hobbyists and Linux fans who have been affectionately labeled a "priesthood" because of the difficult process of developing technical competence and the religious devotion they have to the Linux world view.  Finally, no one had time to write Linux software.  This is because many of the people who worked with Linux were busy updating the system and working in the corporate sector keeping systems working; in other words, with no killer application that would force people to use Linux people in the consumer realm did not use it. 

Flash forward to today, now an entire generation has grown up with free software.  Piracy is rampant in music and on-line books and when I hand a contract to a client they look at me like I am crazy.  "You expect me to pay that much," they say and I grit my teeth and say yes.  Just like my customers, I have bills to pay and mouths to feed.  They charge for their services so why should they be shocked and surprised when I charge for mine.  I think this has been my biggest frustration as an entrepreneur.   I am charging for my services and many people think I should be giving it away for free. 

I think I have a pretty good service to offer.  I have an inventory management system which works over the cloud and can be accessed via a browser, tablet, or mobile phone.  I am in the process of completing a contact management system for the insurance industry which will make it easier for people to trace sales and leads on-line.  It also works with the cloud via a browser, tablet, or mobile phone.  I am even leveraging QR codes for advertising and contact management for small businesses. 

It is an exciting way to make a living but it requires people to realize that software is not free.   It requires blood, sweat and tears to create.  I have invested most of my life into software.  You should invest a little money into to product I sell you.

Until next time.