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Paying for your software

by William Shotts, Jr.

I hope you enjoyed the software you downloaded from this site and all the other sites in the Linux community. Now it is time for you to pay for your software. I hear you saying, "But I thought this software was free!" It is free. All of the software on this site is released under the terms of the GNU General Public License. It is free, but it is free in the sense of "free speech" not "free beer." So how are you going to pay for your software?

I have been using Linux for several years now. It has brought me great enjoyment and personal satisfaction. I created in order to pay for the enjoyment Linux and the Linux community have brought me. As your use and enjoyment of Linux grows, so does your debt to the community of hard working people who made it possible. What are you going to give in return? Maybe you can write code and can create a new tool that will help others get their work done faster or better. There are a lot of software projects that need documentation. Many need better graphic design.

Talk is cheap. Good software isn't.


by William Shotts, Jr.

I got my first computer in the spring of 1978. It was a TRS-80 Model 1. In those days, an ordinary individual owning a computer was a revolutionary event. While many of you may be too young to remember, there was a time when only two groups could afford computers - big business and big government. There was a phrase that was used in the old days that you don't hear anymore: "do not fold, spindle, or mutilate." This phrase was printed on punch cards that would be sent with your phone bill and such. The problem was that while you weren't allowed to mistreat the punch card, the same could not be said of the way the large institutions with computers treated everybody else.

In the early days of personal computing, there was tremendous excitement about the potential for personal empowerment that the computer could provide. One example that I remember was this: suppose you wanted to write to your congressman about some law you wanted changed. Before personal computers, you would sit down at the typewriter and compose a letter to your congressman and then mail it. With a computer and a mailing list, you could do the same thing, but you didn't have to settle with writing a letter to just your congressman, you could write to all of them!

It was an amazing thing to have control over your own computer. To have the freedom to learn how it worked, to create new ways of using it based on this newfound understanding. Today, we take computers for granted. They are everywhere. And more and more we take our freedom for granted, too. We seem to accept the idea that we are not smart enough to really understand our computers, that software is supposed to crash all the time and that we have to pay someone else for the right to use our own computers.

With the coming of the Internet we have once again been put into revolutionary times. There is another wave of personal empowerment as well. Now everyone can be a publisher. But once again our freedom is in danger. Recent attempts to censor Internet content, prohibitions on reverse engineering, and the rise of digital access controls create the beginnings of a diminished future, like the one portrayed by Richard Stallman in his essay "The Right To Read".

I urge all of you to think long and hard about the freedoms you take for granted.

See also, The Freedom to Read Statement from the American Library Association and Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's Findings of Fact in the Microsoft antitrust trial.

The Moral Dilemma of Intellectual Property

by William Shotts, Jr.

Let's imagine for a moment that we live in the (perhaps distant) future. You have just invented a machine that can duplicate matter. You throw any object into this machine and set the number copies and out they come. Image the good you could do with such a machine. If you put an apple in the machine, you could, with some effort, give everybody in the world an apple. But what would the apple growers have to say about this? Would they try to get laws passed that would outlaw your machine? Failing that, would they try to force you to change your machine so it could not copy apples, and further, would they try to outlaw the mere discussion of how to duplicate apples?

Seems silly, I know. The apple growers, like everyone else, might find a way to enjoy the benefits of a device that could free the world from physical want.

We don't have a machine that can copy matter, but we do have a machine that can copy information. It's the hundreds of millions of computers we use every day. Increasingly connected together into a vast global network, we stand on the edge of an era where the world's people can be free of informational want. That is, except for this little problem of "intellectual property."

If we could return to the distant future and the apples, what do you suppose the value of an apple is if you can make unlimited copies at no cost? You got it, zero. What is the value of a Metallica song after Napster gets done with it? You got it, zero. In the analog world, supply is limited. The law of supply and demand determines the price, but in the digital world supply is always unlimited, so the cost it always zero.

Naturally, the recording industry, the movie studios, and the proprietary software companies hate this. Someone has come along and killed their golden goose. I imagine that the buggy whip manufacturers felt the same way with the advent of the automobile. Actually, hate is an understatement. They want revenge.

Through a combination of legislation and industry pressure, the media companies are attempting to force people to give up their computers. It will still seem like you have a computer, except it won't do the thing most basic to its nature. It won't freely move and duplicate information. If you had a RAM chip in your computer that did not freely move and duplicate information, you would replace it as defective. Limiting computers this way destroys their wonderful gift.

The goal of the media companies is to realize a fantastic vision. A pay-per-view world of books, movies, music, and software where there is no physical trace of their product, where they get to duplicate their content at no cost to them and make everybody pay to look at it every time. Rather than losing their golden goose, they change it into a golden Godzilla.

So in exchange for this land grab by the media companies, we are expected to give up our fair use rights (granted to us under the Constitution) and say "oh, never mind" to the prospect of setting the world's knowledge free for all to share and benefit from.

Here we have the dilemma, should we allow information to become universally available to everyone or should we allow the intellectual property holders create an artificial shortage of their products? To me, the important word here is "artificial". Computers naturally want to make copies. To do otherwise requires a lot of unnatural acts, as you have seen if you have ever worked with any copy-protection scheme.

The concept of intellectual property may be obsolete. It may be another buggy whip.

The Software Industry of Tomorrow

by William Shotts, Jr.

One of the criticisms of free software you hear over and over again is that there is no business model for software companies to use with free software. After all, it is said, how can you sell something that your customers can get for free? What this criticism really says is, "how can companies use their present business model to sell free software?" Obviously they can't.

If ever there was a technology that could be described as "disruptive," it would be free software. It scares the hell out of people. It is feared that if all software were free, no one would have any incentive to write software and thus the whole world would just dry up. This line of reasoning overlooks several important facts:

  1. Most software is not packaged product. The truth is that most software is developed for internal use.

  2. People still want software and are willing to pay for it. Since software is still needed, there will always be work for programmers to solve other people's problems.

  3. Software development in its present form is very wasteful. Closed source code has a chilling effect on software development. There is tremendous incentive to reinvent the wheel as licensing other closed source tools is as limiting to developers as it is to end-users. This failure to "stand on the shoulders of giants" along with the proprietary nature of their own work causes continuous limits on their own development resources.

The present closed source model is a fairly recent development in the software industry. Before the PC, most software was contracted and those contracts always provided for source code to be given to the customer. The customer, after all, wanted control of his computer and wanted the freedom to have another contractor provide future maintenance of the code. Once the PC software industry discovered the secret of selling a $2 diskette for $400, the present business model fully took hold. But such a trick can only work if you can enforce an artificial shortage on the software.

The model of the future will be very different. In the future, when you pay for software you will pay for its development. You will not pay for the effects of the artificial shortage of software. In fact, there will be a variety of new kinds of business models:

  1. Software Development Houses are a traditional business that develops software for hire. In the future, they will market their services to groups of companies that wish a particular application built. The resulting project will be open to outside developers and the customers for participation. One example is the relationship between the Mozilla project and Netscape. Another example is Cygnus Solutions division of Red Hat.

  2. Development Brokers will be a new type of business that will find groups of users for a particular application or system and will organize them into consortiums that will fund the development of projects. They are the middlemen that will bring users and software development houses together. They will negotiate the project requirements, the acceptance plans, and contract administration with the software development houses. There have been a few attempts at this model, but so far they have mistakenly attempted to match up large companies and individual developers.

  3. Development Support Companies will provide on-line services for developers. Early examples of this business are SourceForge and Collab.Net. One problem that software development houses will face is how to host projects for open source development and maintenance. Various companies will step forward to address this market.

  4. System Integration and Management Services will emerge to coordinate the delivery of software products to users. This is not practical in the closed source world and it results in severe logistical and cost issues for large users of software systems. Early examples of this developing model are the Red Hat Network and Ximian Red Carpet.

As you can see, there will be a future after all.