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Software as a Service

Published on Friday, 18 December, 2020

I've always been one to thinker with objects around me. Early enough in my life that curiosity and drive extended to the world of computers. I was never that into programming and development per se, I much more enjoyed crafting an environment for myself given the great programming tools that very smart people had made available for me.

Because that's what software is. Tools. And whilst that might seem like a very ordinary take on computing and something that a lot of people agree with, it seems to me that more and more people don't have that idea internalized.

What do I mean? Well, software has become more and more an end goal by itself, rather than a tool to make your life easier. Software has become a service, a product that people try to upsell you on and to lock you in and that is a huge concern for me.

Imagine a screwdriver. It's a pretty handy tool with a singular purpose that it does very well. Even more, when you buy that screwdriver it's yours and will be yours forever. You have paid for its production costs (including materials, labour, transportation and all the other rigmarole) and will enjoy it until it breaks. Nobody restricts your usage of this screwdriver - you can use it however you want. If you want to use it for something dumb like a fuse in your fusebox that's on you. You are free to do whatever you want with your tool and you alone bear the responsibility that is attached to that freedom. This is how property has worked all through history. Violation of this basic principle (examples - slavery, massive land owning by a certain class or ethnicity) has always resulted in struggle, population unrest and revolutions.

For a certain time this was true for commercial software as well - you bought a CD with a computer game or Micro$oft Office on it, and you owned that disk. Whilst the companies that made the product did their best to obfuscate the underlying code and make it as hard as possible for you to modify and maybe share it directly they couldn't really do anything to your copy - if I had Acrobat Reader on my PC, Adobe couldn't possibly do anything to remove it from there. My tools were complicated and proprietary (which is a discussion for another time), but at least they were mine in a sense. I owned my copies and nobody could realistically take them away from me.

But software doesn't work like that any more. Nowadays you don't own your tools. Through targeted marketing to employers and promises of great convenience we have given up on our software tools. Let me give you some examples:

Google Docs / Office 365 - here it's obvious - you put someone else not only in control of your software tools but also of your files. Whilst it might be convenient, it's a full surrender of your digital property. Usually people who use these types of services for their personal files make some form of the following argument as to why they use services like that - "Well, I don't really put important stuff or thing I care about there...and if I put something important, I'll probably make an offline backup!" This is of course a faulty argument and a moot point. It equates to three slightly different arguments:

Argument of laziness - I would rather not do anything. I cannot directly see the effect of this on this very moment, therefore taking any actions is a wast of time and energy. Argument of insouciance - I choose to ignore the risks of forgoing some of my freedoms for minor convenience at his very moment. Argument of mutability - I understand the risks, but I can always change this later. Any risks are negligible, because any action I've taken is reversible Of course, all of these arguments are easily refutable and don't hold any merit. And while the first two are in a sense a matter of (misguided) opinion, the third I find the most damning because it's a subtle idea, planted in your psyche that can later be abused. Most of the time, societal changes are (at least in the short term) immutable. Services like Google Drive are designed this way - slowly but surely pushing you into integrating your whole digital life into them.

Software Licences and Proprietary Formats - there is a simple idea that traps people into software - transition costs. I've you've invested sometime into a certain product, even if there is a better one you might be hesitant to switch. This is further amplified by the fact that most proprietary software operates on its own proprietary format for its project files. Make an audio engineering student use your DAW for his first ever mixing project and there is a high probability he will be your customer for life, or he risks not being able to access his old work. And you can happily charge him $12.99 per month. Forever. It's a predatory tactic that works and is very hard to stamp out. Hopefully, I've made an argument as to why you should not give up ownership to your digital screwdrivers. We should cherish, examine and upgrade our tools and share our knowledge with others. All other things go against human nature.

If Software is a service, then the price is your freedom.