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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

The Experts Speak

We've survived into the year 2000! You would think that predictions would now be passe, but I couldn't pass up the following gem referred to me by a colleague. Consider, gentle reader, the following:

SOFTWARE EVOLVING INTO A SERVICE RENTED OFF THE NET
 
The transition of software from traditional packages to an
Internet-based service is likely to advance significantly in
2000. Companies are already using the Internet for internal
communications as well as customer transactions, and 24-hour
Internet connections are becoming common in homes. Software
companies in the future will sell applications as a service, just
as utility companies sell electricity or phone service. The move
to Internet-based computing is happening much more rapidly than
the last major shift in computing, which was the move to
client/server architectures that occurred about 10 years ago. In
the future, the client could become essentially a Web browser,
rather than a powerful PC. The shift of computing to the Internet
threatens Microsoft's dominance, which was built on the PC
computing model. Experts say any ruling in the antitrust trial
might be irrelevant because of the rapid changes brought by
Internet computing that are diminishing Microsoft's hold on the
market. (New York Times 12/20/99)

Hmmm. So where are these "experts"? I've been hearing for years that modular downloadable software is going to put Microsoft out of business, but guess what? Microsoft is still as powerful as ever and still producing annoying monolithic software products. What's worse, Microsoft entices you to buy their monolithic applications by beating you over the head with their operating system. If you don't believe Microsoft has that kind of influence, consider an example that is close to home. We had a site license for a perfectly good word processor. To run all those PCs on campus, we need Windows. So, we site license Windows and guess what? For just a little more, we can license Microsoft Office and all of a sudden, we adopt Microsoft Word as the program of choice. If you think that the Microsoft monopoly does not influence your life, guess again.

So now we have the august experts who are quotable by the New York Times telling us that the Microsoft monopoly is now being made inconsequential by software provided as pay-per-bit service.

The problem with the above story is that in spite of the fact that experts are talking about it nobody's doing it! Let's say you now want to provide your million-line software on a downloadable pay-as-you-go distribution model. To do so requires a whole different approach to product licensing and enabling. It implies that all software "rented" in this way will have enabler codes and that those codes will somehow restrict use to a limited time period. They can't be date-based enabler codes, since you can easily set whatever date you want on most computers. This means that all such software will have to have internal usage counters to be able to measure that the time used equals the time paid for. Such a model adds more code and expense to already complex applications.

Another fallacy

Another fallacy of the above story is "the-browser-is-the-computer" model. You might be able to deliver a spreadsheet in a browser window, but, I have a hard time imagining recording midi sequences or creating a 150-page orchestral score in a browser window. Perhaps this is a reference to Sun Microsystem's Java programming environment which provides the promise of platform independence. The only problem is that because it requires a compatibility layer on our independent platforms, Java programs suffer from potential performance problems. The other small fact is that I have yet to see a Java application provide a solution that wasn't already offered more effectively and with less overhead by a traditional program.

So, what's one to think about the predictions of the New York Times experts. I think the above is naive at best, and transparently serving of Microsoft at the worst. There is an underlying irony here. It is as ironic as Christy Brinkley listening to Billy Joel sing "I want you just the way you are." The exports don't realize that people don't want to pay for software. People especially don't like paying for software every six months with the promise of "new features." It's the equivalent of technological blackmail. "Pay us now or you'll pay more later."

The open source movement

The real change in software will be the explosion of community developed and supported software growing up around the open source movement (see http://www.unt.edu/benchmarks/archives/1999/june99/open.htm ). The open source movement is something that Microsoft really does need to worry about. An open source project like LINUX can't be appropriated (i.e. stolen) by Microsoft, since it consists of copyrighted components, and it can't be bought by Microsoft because it isn't owned by any one organization. It consists of sets of ideas which are implemented in a number of ways by a number of people. The reason the open source movement can succeed is directly attributable to the Internet. The development communities who write open source software would not be large enough to sustain that software without the world-wide opportunities for software distribution and idea exchange offered by the Internet.

The other irony is that it is possible to make money on open source software, not by selling the software, but by selling people support for using the software. A company named RedHat is doing just that with LINUX. Since not everyone is interested in downloading, installing, and configuring LINUX to their own specifications, RedHat provides a version of LINUX which is easy to install by even a casual computing user. You can download their installation package for no charge, but RedHat has another way to make money. They will sell you support. Pay them money and they will answer your questions. Since most people are not programmers or computer experts, answers to questions is usually what they need most.

I guess you can't always believe "the experts ," even if they are quoted by the New York Times. It's not surprising that experts who view things from a commercial perspective can easily miss the impact of free software. Keep your ears open for open source. The next wordprocessor you use could cost you no more than the time you spend waiting for it to download.

Comments, Questions? Send them to Philip Baczewski.