The Software Cycle Has All But Disappeared | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it
These days, the flood of software updates is almost continuous.

 

These days, the flood of software updates is almost continuous.

Used to be, you could almost buy software.  I say “almost” because if you read any old proprietary license carefully, you would have realized that you never really bought the stuff.  Your relationship with the bits was always provisional.

Nearly at the same moment in 1976 that Bill Gates declared in his open letter to hobbyists that a computer tinkerer who doesn’t pay for software (that other people have spent time writing) “should be kicked out of any club meeting they show up at,” he adapted to software the devilish proprietary license, giving the publisher perpetual ownership of the bits.  What a stroke of brilliance!  Microsoft MSFT +0.99% was well and truly launched on that concept.

But nonetheless, software was published — sort of like a book — and a version was expected to be finished, named, and shipped at some point.  Yes, there were update releases from time to time, but Windows 95 was a real thing.  It even came in a box.

“Stability,” corporate buyers called it: how long a particular hardware and software configuration could be expected not to move so that a tested software “disk image” could be relied upon to work in all weather.  Very important for businesses betting the farm on technology.

But stability was always relative.  Particular graphics cards, Ethernet chips, and other hardware were only available for a limited period of time.  Competing with each other, makers of these subsystems brought new version to market every few months, and these latest piece-parts had new software drivers.  Corporate IT managers’ images were broken and had to be requalified.

One of the main reasons for the existence of the software cycle has to do with how software was delivered.  Bits came on disks, first floppy and then optical.  There was a manufacturing aspect to making software.  But since the Internet has made bit delivery nearly instantaneous, developers can update “their” software pretty much whenever they want.  Microsoft has a mechanism that lets a user opt in to background updates.  If you choose to enable it, the maintenance man can be down there messing around pretty much any time your computer is on.

Now, there are good aspects to this continuous updating.  The publisher can fix bugs, patch security flaws as they get discovered, and add new and useful features.  But mostly it represents a de facto Programmers’ Full Employment Act.  After all, how much can anyone really improve a word processor?

But software makers have rushed to turn this phenomenon into an institution.  Call it “software as a service (SaaS),” the practice of which involves the vendor hooking up an intravenous line to your bank account and moving on to the next patient.

Don’t get me wrong.  SaaS is okay for big companies, which would in any event spend large sums buying servers, storage, and networking equipment, trying to remain competitive by adopting new technologies and delivering improved functionality to operating departments.  In many cases, SaaS represents a better economic choice for large outfits.  IBM IBM +0.5%, Oracle ORCL -0.97%, Hewlett-Packard HPQ +1.81%, and Salesforce.com CRM +2.63% are just a few of the companies that derive important revenues from SaaS customers.

But the little guys, particularly those who need only a PC or two to run their shops, don’t want to keep on buying a basic utility year in and year out.  Essentially, they want to purchase new software (sometimes) when they get new hardware.  And they’ve learned to stretch their computers’ lives out when times are tough.  Word processor and spreadsheet still work, even if you have to get a cup of coffee during boot.  That’s not a big penalty, since you were going to get one anyway.  And the speed of the system is often limited by the speed of the typist rather than the processor, despite what Intel INTC +0.43% would have you think.

For all these reasons, I remain skeptical about the success of offerings like Microsoft’s InTune and Office 365.  Most individuals and small businesses are not looking for another monthly bill.  And Microsoft’s case is not helped by the fact that whiny Bill Gates’s insistence that hobbyists should compensate him and Paul Allen for the $40,000 in computer time they shelled out to write Altair BASIC netted him, in the end, so many billions of dollars that he became the richest man on earth.  He got his forty K — and then some.  No one feels an obligation to make him any richer.

For these buyers, Google GOOG +0.08% represents a better alternative.  Many people aren’t brave or technically savvy enough to deal with open source software, which is the real answer to their dilemma, but Chrome and Google Docs are a reasonable way to go.  It’s a bit of a devil’s bargain, letting Google harvest your metadata and pass it on to advertisers and the National Security Agency.  But for clean-living folks, that’s a small price to pay for free software