Saturday, January 24, 2009

I have a dream...

No it's not a dream about hearing less US-centric news involving people treating a mere mortal like he's the Saviour of the world (or at least a small part of it). No, it's just a dream about the end of software piracy.

Software piracy is easier than (say) copyright violation in the printing trade, simply because it's a lot of work (and even a bit of money) to photocopy a book, bind it and make it look like the real thing. Technology is at the point where practically anyone can copy a CD byte for byte, burn another, and even make a cover which looks like the original.

The copy is functionally identical to the original (anti-piracy features aside) so the recipient gets what they want (unlike a photocopied book which loses quality, especially of photos). The only problem is that the author of the software doesn't get the money from the sale - which all has to pay for his/her living expenses while they were writing the thing [sic].

This has become such an issue that many software companies have gone bankrupt and the remaining users of the program have no access to tech support or updates. In other cases people with a great idea for a software package have just let it drop, knowing they could never make it a paying proposition. The ones that survive have had to resort to increasingly elaborate anti-piracy measures, including some fairly costly and/or inconvenient measures like holographic stickers on registration cards or a registration process with fewer automated steps.

But there is another kind of software - the free open source stuff. The authors write for the fun of it (or because they see the need for the software and want to do the human race a favour), and give away the source and the executable code for free. These people don't care about piracy - in fact they prefer people to copy it to their friends rather than putting extra traffic on the official web site.

These people pay their living expenses themselves - usually by having a paid job in another sector and developing software in their own time. Prime examples of Busy People.

So how can we encourage a lot more of these programmers to go open source?

For a start, we have to get them out of these big companies. Nobody is going to be able to fund the building of a flashy corporate head office and a pack of marketing staff out of their own pocket, unless they're seriously deluded. What does the corporate structure do for software? It gives a large project some oversight which helps eliminate inconsistencies between different bits of the program and other silly issues - or rather I should say it CAN help. It brings in experts from the field the software will be aimed at. It gives the software publicity to help build up a userbase. But all those functions seem to be achieveable by large open source developer groups too.

Next, we have to reduce their direct expenses. Free open source development tools are a must - but since that's both the first problem the developers encounter, and the problem they know best how to solve, there are now plenty of very high quality development tools. Computer hardware to do the job is no longer all that expensive, and most people who program and are good at it will be enough of a geek that they want a high performance computer at home anyway.

The only thing left is to reduce their living expenses - in other words, somehow pay them a salary. But nobody is going to buy the work, where is the money coming from?

And this is where the dream comes in. Let these people take a part time job somewhere, even if it's nothing flashier than phone tech support or customer service at an electronics shop. But then let them claim every hour spent in software development under the GPL on their tax, the same as they could claim donations to a charity. Let's say a typical geek spends 20 hours a week at their part time job, earning say $16 an hour. That's $320 a week. The rest of the week, after taking out the usual time spent on the things that just have to be done, would easily amount to 30 hours which could be devoted to this tax deductible software project. Even if the tax office can only afford to give $18 an hour, that's still $540 a week, bringing the programmer's total income up to $45k a year - easily equivalent to a good software engineer salary at a major IT company.

Apart from eliminating piracy by making software free, this will:
- Increase productivity by eliminating the programming hours spent on anti-piracy measures
- Turbocharge IT innovation by effectively creating an infinite number of available jobs in programming
- Bring the advantages of specialised software to people who currently wouldn't use it because the cost outweighs the benefit
- Encourage amateur and start-up activity in other fields (eg music, business) by making full professional grade software available to everyone

Safeguards would be necessary. But the biggest hurdle would be convincing people of the Generation Y idea that says you don't have to pay for something for it to be worthwhile.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Happy new year from the midga!

Yeah I guess I should acknowledge the fact that it's 2009.

Year of the financial meltdown. Yep, I've blogged plenty about that.

Year of the continuing death throes of Microsoft monopoly. I've touched on that.

Year of lots of work for me. I guess I hinted about that too.

It has been well said that "May you live in interesting times" is an old Chinese curse. Welcome to the curse folks - better here than in the boring old middle ages when there were no blog servers.