We are clearly moving to a software focused world — this conclusion is almost as inevitable and natural as taking your next breath (or eating that next Little Bits burger — but don’t get the big one unless you’re really hungry).
But, as with all things, there is a flip side to the world going to software. It could actually turn out that the IT world is on the path to becoming our own worst enemies. This, by the way, is what caught my eye this week, and what causes me to rant a little.
The cost and hassle of repairing modern tractors has soured a lot of farmers on computerized systems altogether. In a September issue of Farm Journal, farm auction expert Greg Peterson noted that demand for newer tractors was falling. Tellingly, the price of and demand for older tractors (without all the digital bells and whistles) has picked up. “As for the simplicity, you’ve all heard the chatter,” Machinery Pete wrote. “There’s an increasing number of farmers placing greater value on acquiring older simpler machines that don’t require a computer to fix.”
The issue at stake, at least in the United States, is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal for someone who has purchased a license to a specific piece of software to copy that software in any way. In order to protect their software, makers of farm tractors (such as John Deere — I just sold my old John Deere last year, by the way) prevent anyone but a “factory authorized technician” from accessing the software guts of their new tractors. This might not seem like a big deal, but farming is tied to the weather and seasons. If you miss a harvest before a heavy rain because some engine sensor won’t work due to a software flaw, the farmer could be forced to stand there and watch an entire crop be ruined — with no recourse. Sure, you can call a repairman (you’re not easily going to have one of these towed to the nearest service station), but it could take days of waiting, and a lot of expense in getting the authorized technician out to a farm. Imagine you’re a farmer in Sydney, Nebraska, a little more than two hours driving time from Denver. What if the nearest technician available is in Texas? Hence the drive for mechanical equipment that doesn’t involve software.
The argument is as old as electronic devices. Certainly you own the hardware, but hardware is patented, not copyright. Software, on the other hand, is copyrighted, and so the end user only really ever gets a license. You don’t ever really own the software you “buy,” whether it’s music, an office package, or the system guts of a farm tractor. But what use is the hunk of hardware you “own” if you can’t use it without the software you only have a “license” for? How long will the world suffer with “too big for their britches” companies playing the game of, “sure, you can buy a $100,000 tractor, but I’ll keep the software, thankyouverymuch?”
In fact, this is what’s driving the entire white box revolution — we in the networking world are getting tired of the vendor dictating our software and our hardware in one big glob. Instead, we want to handle the software and the hardware as separate “things,” with (potentially) different vendors, their own lifecycles, and all the rest. We want our investment in the tools and ideas we have around software to be separate from the vendor’s marketing cycle.
How ironic is it that the IT industry is driving a revolution in taxi service by arguing the software is separate from the hardware, while at the same time we see big companies using copyright to prevent the hardware from, well, being separated from the software? Maybe we need to rethink how we do business in some fundamental way.
If we really want computing to be ubiquitous, then we need to have a little more respect for the users who are paying our bills. We’re going to need to separate the case of software embedded in hardware, without which the hardware isn’t useful, and software that’s, well, just software. The only other option is to lose the trust of those same people, and relegate ourselves to a niche — “that’s a nice toy, but to get real work done you need a car without a computer.”
Something to think about.