Future of Software

Future of Software

Technical note: For convenience, I'll use the terms closed-source and commercial software interchangeably here though they're not quite the same thing.

Unlike most of my articles, this is a casual opinion piece that I freely acknowledge is speculative. It's subject to change and may evolve quite a bit.

Let's think about software as a commercial product. Specifically, software as a discrete object that comes in a box or on a CD. Programs ranging from consumer desktop applications such as office suites to business software such as accounting systems.

My thesis is that the old market for software of this type is dead. Not gone, certainly, but dead nonetheless. It's the proverbial dinosaur that has been shot and killed but is so large that it won't notice its death for a while.

I won't attempt to prove this thesis but I'll comment on some of the issues involved.

There will always be corporations. Many of them will always sell and/or buy software. But the software market is evolving just as media is changing (and newspapers have already changed). FOSS is one of the factors involved.

As background information, FOSS has at least two major camps; Free Software and Open Source. For more on the differences, click here.

I'm more in the Open Source, or less radical, camp, but I heard from somebody recently who imagined I was in the Free Software, or more radical, camp. He wanted to vent his frustration at the changes I've referred to.

His views were typical of some of those developers who feel threatened by FOSS. They talk about how FOSS is produced only by corporations and by "losers" living in their "parents' basements" and how this is temporary. If corporations would simply end their support, the reasoning goes, FOSS would go away and things would return to the way they were.

In other words, it would be 1989 again, a few corporations would control the market, and programs would mostly come in shrinkwrap boxes. Or perhaps be downloaded with the aid of a credit card from tightly controlled online outlets.

It's a fantasy. Microsoft was aware of this by the late 1990s. You may wish to review the Halloween documents click here for more information.

What Microsoft realized is that FOSS, quite simply, is a superior development model. Closed-source fans might point at the fact that FOSS projects often fail. This is a red herring. If a FOSS project achieves critical mass, it may be inferior feature-wise to the best of the competition in the closed-source world. However, its development will ultimately scale with the Internet. Closed-source can't begin to compete with this.

Additionally, closed-source isn't exactly a bargain in some respects. Here are the "benefits" that customers get from it:

  • Slow evolution compared to FOSS
  • More bugs and slow maintenance cycles
  • Focus on hiding security issues as opposed to disclosing and correcting them
  • Customer support relegated to largely untrained non-native language people located in other countries
  • Excessive timidity when it comes to addressing software patents (which are not even recognized in some venues) or intellectual-property issues in general
  • Backdoors added for the use of corporations and governments
  • Spyware that feeds as much information as possible back to corporations and governments
  • In some cases, FOSS simply works better. Note that Microsoft ran its own Get the Facts anti-Linux ad campaign on FOSS servers!
  • Planned obsolescence. Closed-source software isn't supposed to last because vendors need people to purchase new copies.
  • Most importantly, lock-in based on closed standard (customers must not be free to switch to alternative products)

Put it all together and the handwriting is on the wall. The move away from closed-source software started back in the 1990s and has been building up steam slowly but surely ever since. Microsoft's old models for growth are finished though the company itself is in no danger. FOSS rules inside a variety of devices. In some cases, entire nations now mandate that open-source be used instead of closed-source for government purposes.

Does this mean that commercial software is going to go away? No. There is a trend that dates back to the 1990s and now aims to compete with FOSS: Software as a Service. The goal is simple: Regain the control over users that is being lost. The approaches involved are equally simple:

  • Get users to think of software as something that is rented and not owned
  • Persuade users to turn over their data to giant corporations that will generously protect but ultimately own it

Which way will things go? The answer is that all sides will exist. But shrinkwrap software as king of all it surveys is done for.

A great deal more should be written about this. But I am out of time for now.

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