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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Will we ever reach peak tolerance of crap software and unfair terms?

If you've ever bothered reading a software license of the sort that comes with everyday software you'd probably struggle to cope with the rage against unfair and restrictive practices.

For example, as a small business owner I often choose to build my own computers; that way I ensure key components like the motherboard allow an upgrade path that will give me reasonable performance over 6 or more years' of life.

However, try and buy an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) copy of Windows 8 Professional for a new home-built PC and you find that whilst your hand-assembled computer does fit all the requirements set down by Microsoft in the OEM license, as a small business owner I'm prohibited by this:
3. Key licensing terms for your use of this product are:
      * As the operating system on a PC you build for personal use 
(my bold)
This is exactly like turning up at a car showroom to buy a brand new car, only to be told the price doubles if I want to use my car to drive to business meetings.

Where is the fairness about being told what I can and cannot do with something I just bought?

The answer is in the question.  I didn't buy anything; at least not according to the software vendor.  The view of the software vendor is that they are only selling you a license to use their software, and that means they can also set down terms over how you use their software.

As it happens the licensing quagmire with Windows 8 with respect to "personal use" gets even more interesting since the license seemingly goes on to contradict itself:
The software package may not be used:
* [...]
* To license more than five copies of the software (in total) for commercial use  
So it's far from clear whether a small business owner with 5 Windows 8 Professional PCs risks death by lawsuit at the hands of Microsoft until such a case hits the courts.

Presumably then one could also test whether the use of the word "Professional" in the title implies commercial use, as I had assumed myself when I bought the software.

Of course all this is moot since I found Windows 8 practically unusable and instead opted to buy a Windows 7 upgrade for an existing copy of Windows Vista and upgrade the hardware rather than struggle on with Windows 8.

But the point is that many such conditions are largely untested in court, and they will probably never get tested because of the huge costs that would be awarded should one lose such a case.

So consumers - small business owners especially - will play it safe, potentially paying over the odds for software because software vendors include increasingly restrictive terms in their licenses in order to milk every last drop from the market.

And such terms aren't the only trick up the software vendors' sleeves. The other big con is built-in obsolescence.

I don't mean to be mean to Microsoft here but they are making it hard for me not to use their strategy to highlight my case.

The main reason I need to upgrade from Vista, apart from it [still] having a few performance snarls, is that I want to upgrade from Office 2007.

Microsoft has in its wisdom decided that Vista users cannot install Office 2013.  They also decided Vista users can't have Internet Explorer 10 either, but that doesn't bother me so much as I only use Internet Explorer for software testing and we have separate machines for that.

Whilst Microsoft officially defend these limitations on technical grounds I strongly suspect otherwise.

Oh, and the main reason I want to upgrade from Office 2007 is that the crappy half-baked ribbon still annoys the hell out of me.   So really I need to upgrade my duff operating system because I want to fix some duff office software.  Thanks guys!

But I am being unfair to Microsoft because they aren't the worse culprits on obsolescence.  No, seriously, I mean that, without even mentioning the Windows XP end-of-life exploit timebomb...

I previously blogged my frustration about VMware releasing a new version of their virtualisation product Workstation every year, effectively leaving those who don't pay to upgrade with no long term support.

And mobile phone and tablet manufacturers could be leaving me open to a greater peril: malware.

My phone, an original Samsung Galaxy S, is 3 years old and the last software upgrade available from Samsung was over a year ago.

Federal authorities in the US estimate millions of Android users are vulnerable to cyber threats and I can only assume my phone, having had no software update in over a year, is one of those.

Buying a new phone so that I can protect myself just reinforces the new norm that a piece of equipment originally costing me £500 has a lifespan of a measly couple of years.

If my washing machine broke after 2 years I would be filling the consumer review websites with my dissatisfaction. TVs, fridges, dishwashers - we expect all these appliances of similar value to last 5 years at least; and hope for 10!

But mobile phones are more like a computer than a fridge freezer so I should scale my expectations accordingly.

However phones generally have one major limitation: the hardware and software is typically locked so that owners can't take matters into their own hands should the operating system provider abruptly end support.

Yes, that old PC running Windows 2000 could still be useful if you can be bothered to install Linux and only want to use it for basic tasks like typing letters.

But when hardware is locked down it is essentially like buying that new car I mentioned earlier, but with the engine compartment padlocked so that only authorised dealers can perform repairs.  Doesn't sound very free market to me; especially since competition authorities around the world have by and large already dealt with the monopolistic threat from requiring drivers to use only "authorised service centres".

How long will consumers continue to lap up the slop that software vendors are forcing us to eat?  Perhaps until something or someone forces their hands.

Maybe if my phone gets a virus because the manufacturer has stopped providing updates I could sue for any material losses suffered?  After all I have no options available to me bar stopping using the phone, and this is by design of the manufacturer, rather than accidentally ending up with a car that no-one is capable of servicing.

The global software giants will continue to focus on profits above software reliability, security and consumer satisfaction until something changes; because, at the moment, there's no downside for an industry simply doing what it pleases to sell more and more stuff to people; people who have a rather narrow range of options available to them.



  1. Im surprised you didnt mention Apple once during the second half of that.

    I have a barely 2 year old ipod touch 2G which physically works fine yet is essentially useless now due to apples brutal OS update and EOL schedule and thus my apps gradually refusing to update on it any more. Its like theyre selling essentially disposable goods at premium prices. Learned my lesson.

    1. Thanks for that. I've only ever bought one Apple product, an iPad - actively avoid them when I can. Forced to use Microsoft platform because clients demand it, in various ways....

  2. Hmm. I'd recommend Apple as having far simpler, always transferable licensing.

    Things change a little with the App Store, but if you've under 10 seats the App Store itself will enforce licensing. Above that and you're into VPP, which again is transferable.

  3. But if the French Gendarmerie and many German districts and government departments, not to mention other large organisations can use Linux which obviates pretty much all licensing I'm not clear why a small UK business can't.

    MS Office compatibility is a red herring - it's not even file compatible with itself and no version implements the agreed standard.

    1. Believe me I've tried, but there came a point when fighting the "check my shared Outlook calendar" and "I've sent you the latest project file" was costing too much time. I use CentOS and Ubuntu for development environments, it's just the business end I realised it was a battle not worth fighting...


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