The pitfalls of proprietary

Categories: English Geeky

Risk is a constant for today’s companies. Google, Microsoft, Apple, IBM (well, maybe not so much with IBM), Toyota… they all take risks developing and testing new technologies. The risk lies in the amount of money and resources they devote to creating new technology. When said technology involves keeping a team to upgrade, fix and evolve it, the risk multiplies. The risk is mitigated if the technology is successful and provides a reasonable return on investment. Indeed, the whole point of “risking” your resources is so that created technology might prove a commercial success and yield the company many times the investment.

However there are times when things don’t go quite right and a company has to “cut its losses” and scrap a project or product altogether. Google has done it, IBM has done it (PS/2), Apple has done it (the Lisa). Microsoft has done it many times, and in doing it yet again they help me make my point today.

Users of Microsoft’s 3D simulation platform have been rocked by news that the company has laid off off or reassigned most of the of the platform’s developers“,  reads an article at Microsoft has a 3D simulation platform? Well yes, as part of their venerable Flight Simulator product (has the honor of being the first piece of commercial software I bought, circa 1988), it seems they had spawned off a 3D simulation product. Microsoft’s announced enhancements to the platform meant it was going to be targeted at markets such as real estate, city planning, and law enforcement. And developers for these industries were thrilled, and had already begun work on applications using Microsoft’s ESP technology.

Maybe the reason is the current economical climate; whatever, Microsoft seems to be shedding a lot of “non-essential” teams, among them the Flight Simulator team, followed closely by the ESP team. Streamlining seems like a sensible tactic for a profit-oriented business, right?

Users don’t seem to think that way.

“As a commercial developer who is currently working on two major ESP projects I can’t begin to express the concern I have hearing this news. I look forward to hearing from Microsoft as to the future plans for ESP”

“I’m gutted that this is probably no longer going to see the light of day. It looks like there were a lot of people working really hard to build a revolutionary product. It must be totally crushing for them to see all that work go to waste.”

‘my company used it for a solution and invested time and money into getting it approved and purchased. Microsoft sure handed us a raw deal for taking a gamble on their platform.’

Anyway, my point with all this is that proprietary software is a bad idea. Microsoft is the embodiment of all we loathe in a software company; however much they talk about being business partners, the current schism is a sample, a reminder that, should your business no longer be profitable to them, Microsoft won’t hesitate to hang you out to dry. The bottom line is all that matters to them. And their use and selling of proprietary technologies means that, should the worst happen, you’re left with no recourse but to throw all your investment away and start anew with some other product, hoping that that other company won’t do the same to you.

Rather than risking this, why not go free software? Things would be very different if Microsoft opened up ESP; it’s not like they’re going to profit from that anymore. That way companies with a reasonably talented developer pool might take the project forward, as has happened with many open-sourced, formerly-commercial products (Blender comes to mind). That’s a company that protects your investment. Microsoft just ripped them off, plain and simple.

For all those companies developing products using ESP, it’s likely their business is not primarily software development. Thus they chose to go with a commercial, specialized software vendor. And look what happened to them! Even if they don’t have the in-house expertise to develop something like ESP, a pooling of resources or funding a non-profit tasked with developing and freely releasing an ESP substitute would make sense. A law enforcement organization sees no competition from a real estate, architecture or urban planning company, so what’s it to them if they use the same, freely-developed product on which to base their custom offerings? (look at Unreal Engine and what ID Software does with their Quake FPS engines; also, ID software has open-sourced their old releases, which rings true with what I’m ranting about here). Again, as long as it’s not their core business, there’s no problem with them cooperating in the creation of a component for their main project.

Misery loves company and at least, through heated discussion in MSDN, those users who were wronged by Microsoft have come in contact with each other and might, if they have the vision to venture into the world of free software, have an opportunity to make sure this never happens again to them or others wanting similar technologies.