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Walled Gardens and the Wild West

January 27, 2012

I’m probably not going to say anything new here, but I might have a few insights that are different. Today I saw a posting on Slashdot where someone, probably someone under 30, said that software piracy was invitable and nothing could be done to stop it. They went on and pretty much said the correct response in their view was to make it all free, give up entirely on the idea of revenue from “imaginary property” (digital goods) and figure out some other way to make money.

Like maybe making commodity hardware for the lowest price. Sadly, that niche is currently filled by China and through really low labor costs they are going to be pretty much unbeatable at this. Even a 100% automated factory where you dump raw ores in one end and finished iPads come out the other wouldn’t be cheaper than the arrangements in China with nearly slave labor being pretty happy to be working at all.

Well, I should point out that on the Apple iPod, iPad and iPhone platforms there is virtually zero piracy. Sure, it is possible – but first you have to jailbreak the device. It doesn’t take too long before someone figures out how to do this to the latest version of iOS every time a new one comes along, so piracy is not really restricted by the hardware being locked down in some manner. What really deters piracy is the jailbreaking process is hard and it can void the warranty. Also, if you aren’t careful you can end up with a bricked device and no warranty. Hence only a small percentage of these devices are jailbroken and an even smaller number have pirated software on them.

This environment also has eliminated (100% as far as I know) malware from the platform. There is no such thing as anti-virus or anti-malware for any of these platforms. This pretty much kills dead two things that plague PC software developers and PC users.

This is a clear indication that the future of general user computing is that of “appliances” like the iPad and iPhone rather than the general-purposes open architecture PC. We are seeing significant numbers of users exchanging laptop computers for iPads today and we are seeing nearly all major software vendors trying to move to some kind of App Store model. What this does is give the user one place to get software and also puts in place some kind of validation of that software. End result is a better experience for the user.

Now, there are clearly some users that actually do need an open environment where they can put any software they choose on their computer. The locked down walled garden of the iPad is not for them. But this is only a small fraction of the computer-using community. The problem with such systems is clear: an administrator is required and that administrator has to be knowledgeable about the operating system, the hardware and the software being installed. We have tried for 30 some years to get the general user community to understand this, get the necessary education and be able to do this. It has failed.

Today the average user has a home computer with no administrator and often many different items of “malware” on their computer. Contrast this with the corporate environment where you have a staff of people serving in this administrator role and the problems drop significantly. Where most of the knowledgeable PC community has been going for the last 30 years or so is trying to get the entire PC user community so it is structured like the corporate environment with someone performing this administration role for the home users. This hasn’t worked very well and is likely the completely wrong approach.

In less than six years Apple has shown a clear model of the future with the introduction of the iPhone, iPod Touch and finally the iPad. These devices need no administration whatsoever and have never had any sort of malware problem. There also has never been a piracy issue for software developers. This is in stark contrast to the (slightly) more open Android model which does allow installation of unapproved, unexamined software and has had significant malware issues. Also, there is a clear path for software piracy on the Android platform although it is (so far) much less pervasive than it is on the PC platform.

The fact that users seem to want an appliance that “just computes” rather than an open device they can program is bolstered by the sales of iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad devices. Somewhat similar Android-based devices are available and are selling pretty well, but price is clearly a factor – the Apple devices are rather expensive in comparison. If “freedom” was a significant feature in sales you would have expected the more open Android tablets to have replaced iPad devices in the marketplace. If anything, what we are seeing is the more cost-concious buyers going to Android tablets and other users selecting iPad devices. There are much more difficult comparisons that can be made with phones as there are a lot more factors external to the phone and phone software.

Windows 8 with its Microsoft App Store may make this even more obvious. No, I don’t believe software piracy is invitable and that the proper choice is to abandon revenue for digital goods. I do agree that younger people that have grown up with being able to freely pirate may have some difficulties understanding that people actually do count on revenue from their works in digital form. It is interesting to see these people when hired by a software company go through some convolutions when they figure out their salary is being paid by people spending money for stuff they used to download for free.

InfinaDyne is publishing Apple iPhone and iPad applications as well as PC software.

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