The Problem With Commercial Software

For me, the commercial software era ended this month. It was a random event, but part of a broader trend, and the way it happened illustrates why separately purchased software for specific purposes is losing its hold on the world.

The software involved belonged to a suite sold to graphic designers for more than a decade. It was considered industry-leading software, but was pulled off the market around 2008. Through a series of lucky breaks, I managed to keep two of the four applications going for 15 years. That is a long time, ages in the computer software world, and it got harder when the company killed its validation servers offline 5 years ago. After that point, it was no longer possible to move these applications from one computer to another or recover them if any small thing went wrong. I was living on borrowed time, and time ran out. I don’t know what happened, but one application decided on its own that the license for the suite needed to be validated again. Since the software publisher had killed off the validation server years earlier, that was no longer possible, and the bottom line was that it was no longer possible for me to open the applications I had purchased.

These were applications I could not keep going for much longer anyway. They were coded using a bizarre architecture involving several layers of patches, some of which would no longer run at all on the computers 2022. I needed to get something more modern, andI had been putting off that transition. Now I will have to figure out how I can do the same things with up-to-date software.

This particular company no longer sells software, but even it did, I would hesitate to put any work of importance in the hands of this company again. Their track record is that they sold software to me and millions of other customers, then intentionally disabled it to prevent users from using it. The document files I created and that years of my public career had relied upon are digital junk now, not able to be recovered in any practical sense.

This kind of operational risk is exactly the scenario that any well-run business or anyone doing something of lasting importance will try to avoid. You do not want your enterprise or your years of work be at the mercy of the whims of a supplier or anyone on the outside.

Fortunately, the whole world is making this transition away from commercial software. Large companies are unplugging their commercial databases one by one and putting data into what are sometimes called cloud databases, in which all data is stored in well-known file formats that are based on published standards. You might criticize the efficiency of these databases, but the fact that a licensing issue or technical failure can never take the enterprise data hostage more than makes up for it.

In my own life, I was surprised to see long I had gone without making any separate software purchases. This is partly because I am in an in-between phase of my career anomy computer hardware, but it also must be said that the need to buy software to solve a particular problem had not come up in many years.

Separate from the operational risks of commercial software, there is a reason why commercial software is usually the wrong answer in an economic sense anyway. For the most part, the things you want to do with a computer are the same things that many other people want to do too. As long as that is the case, it is easier to provide this software as a public service. If it takes, as an example, $20 million to create software that 1 billion people can use, the costs are too low to collect them from the end users. Each user’s sharif the cost would be, in theory, a sum of money so small that such units of money do not exist. If this were commercial software, the plan would be to charge each user several hundred dollars, then spend a $150 million on another layer of software to make sure the users too not cheat the system, along with a larger sum on technical support personnel to solve the inevitable problems that come up when the licensing system fails. The economic proportions in this approach are all wrong.

Then there is the issue of functionality and stability. Software that will be used by so many people ought to be publicly seen, vetted, and tested, so that stable, reliable software can be delivered. That isn’t possible with commercial software.

When I searched online for any possible workaround for the applications that had failed on my computer, half of the results I found in my search were warnings about how unstable and crash-prone this particular company’s software was. I had seen evidence of this myself. As one extreme example, application that I relied on the most heavily would crash if you attempted to export a PDF using the command provided for that purpose, and any user had to remember to create the PDF in a more roundabout way. This is an extreme case, but instability is a tendency that cuts across all software that is created and tested in secret or by a small team.

What do we want computers for? We want to communicate, we want to save data, we want create content in a form that can be delivered to others, and we want to be able to consumer that same content. These answers will be the same for most users and businesses.

If you are thinking, “I am doing something different, therefore I need to buy an application for this special purpose,” that thought on its own ought to be a red flag in your mind. For example, if the widely available software does not create content in the format that you want it to, is that because that format is rarely used and won’t be accessible to most of your intended audience? The thought that you need something special is likely to a psychological error, perhaps out of an exaggerated view of your importance or fear over your adequacy compared to the many other people doing the same thing. Decisions made out of these psychological errors are more likely to fail than those made from a level-headed view of what you are trying to do.

Of course there are exceptions, situations that call for the purchase of software, but even then, one must resist the call of ego that says, “I need something special for this.” As an example from my own desk, I regularly edit music videos. I will be better off when I get around to purchasing an up-to-date computer along with a video editing application. But for the best result, I will want use an application that is widely used and universally recommended for this purpose, and it is no accident that this is almost the least expensive application in the category. When an application has a million users, there is no need or reason for the price per user to be very high.

Commercial software will be with us for years to come, but the era in which it dominated the computer business ended a few years ago. Over time, as more users discover that there are more capable alternatives to the software they have paid for, and that many of these alternatives are free to download, the world’s reliance on separately sold commercial software will continue to decline.

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