Dark Cloud: “Software as a Service”

Storm cloud cartoonEver since the emergence of the personal computer software market in the 1970s, vendors mostly adopted an “outright sale” model of licensing.  The customer purchased the product, often originally in a shrink-wrapped box, which delivered the software on media such as floppy discs or CD-ROM, along with a license which (usually) conferred the perpetual right to use the software on one computer.  This model, adopted from the consumer electronics industry, is not a particularly good fit for the software business.  Unlike a television set or even a personal computer, software continues to evolve over time, as new features are added, support for new and more capable hardware is integrated, changes are made to maintain compatibility with the underlying software platform (operating system, window manager, database package, etc.), and modifications are made to comply with and support evolving industry standards.

All of this requires ongoing investment by the software vendor, and if revenue is received just once, with the initial purchase, it’s difficult to see how this can be funded, especially once the period of rapid growth comes to an end and a product obtains a large market share with an installed base which have already paid for it.  Trying to persuade users to buy an entire new product and discard the old one is a non-starter, except for some very low price point products such as games (where the update is usually positioned as a new edition in a series).  So, vendors mostly tried to persuade their installed base to pay for updates, at a fraction of the price of the original software, and customers constantly pushed back about the cost of the updates and often continued to use ancient versions of the software, which caused the vendor headaches and customers difficulty when older versions of a program wouldn’t read files written by the current release.

With widespread adoption of the Internet, it appeared an alternative might be on the horizon.  In 1993, I wrote a widely-quoted paper, “Programs are Programs”, which forecast, based upon a number of then-current trends, that software would eventually move to a subscription model, where the initial purchase of an expensive package and subsequent marketing of updates to the installed base would give way to a regular subscription fee which included the license to use the software and all subsequent updates at no additional charge.  Software would, then, become a subscription service just like a cable television channel.  The Internet would, I predicted, provide the means for efficient delivery of software and updates, with adequate security to protect vendors against piracy of their software.

Like many of my ideas, this one took a while to take off.  First of all, the Internet of 1993 was nowhere near as widespread, fast, or secure as was required, and took time to remedy those shortcomings.  But eventually, some companies began to dip their toes into the water, with Adobe, Inc. (developer of Photoshop, Acrobat, Illustrator, Premiere, etc.) successfully moving a substantial fraction of their user base to a subscription model called “Adobe Creative Cloud”.  As of May 2013 (twenty years after “Programs are Programs”) Adobe announced it would no longer sell software outright but only offer it by subscription.  Microsoft announced their “Office 365” subscription service in 2011, and reported that by the final quarter of 2017 subscription revenue had exceeded that of outright sales of the applications.  Google’s “G Suite” applications have always only been available as an online service, with a free tier and subscription service with additional capabilities for business clients.

But, of course, the downside of “software as a service” is that, like that other fine euphemism, “the cloud”, it really just means “somebody else’s computer”.  Unless you go to the effort to make and export backups in a portable format (presuming the service provider lets you do that), your data are potentially hostage to the vendor and, even worse, may be stored in formats which are only accessible using the vendor’s applications, which require a paid-up subscription.

Users of Adobe products in Venezuela just found out about the dark shadow cast by the cloud.  Here is a notice Adobe sent to subscribers in Venezuela on 2019-10-07  (click image to read original document).

Adobe cancellation of subscriptions in Venezuela

This is pursuant to Executive Order 13884, “Blocking Property of the Government of Venezuela” which, of course, like most of the ACME gadgets deployed by the U.S. federal government, has implications which go far beyond the title on the box.

This illustrates the risk of “software as a service”.  Your data are in somebody else’s hands, and may be accessible only through applications they can cut you off from using.  This is an example of ham-fisted government intervention, but given the demonstrated political biases of prominent cloud vendors such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, who knows how long it will be before users are denied service and access to their data due to wrong-think?

To protect yourself, it’s wise to migrate, or at least learn enough so you can migrate, if and when necessary, to free and open source alternatives to these cloud applications, which you can run on your own computer and do not require licenses or subscriptions which can be remotely terminated.  An excellent place to start is the LibreOffice suite, which is available for Linux, macOS, and Windows, and is pre-installed on the Raspberry Pi.  For multimedia production, check out GIMP, Audacity, OpenShot, and Inkscape.  All of the content I have produced for Ratburger.org has been developed with these tools.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

8 thoughts on “Dark Cloud: “Software as a Service””

  1. I have been able to open most Microsoft Word Documents with things like Libre and Open Office in the past. Does this still work, or has Microsoft locked them totally down?

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  2. The cloud is evil. Google is pure evil. Faceberg is a robotic devil. Apple is rotten. Twitter is a sewer.

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  3. Good point. Normally we just think about data protection as far as security against hackers, etc. But it could be law changes, a company going out of business, or some other reason that you lose access to your data.

    Not SaaS related, but this is why I still buy DVD/Blu-Rays when I find a movie I really like. I see the option to “buy” on streaming sites, but don’t trust that it will be there when I want to watch it?

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  4. Bryan G. Stephens:
    I have been able to open most Microsoft Word Documents with things like Libre and Open Office in the past. Does this still work, or has Microsoft locked them totally down?

    Every now and then I get sent documents in the latest versions of Microsoft file formats (.docx, .xlsx, etc.) and LibreOffice has been able to open them all acceptably.  Now, if the source documents use Microsoft-specific fonts and such, they may not look the same, but I’ve found them all to be readable.  These have all been pretty straightforward documents: complicated things that use macros and lots of fancy formatting features may not work.

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  5. Vance:
    Not SaaS related, but this is why I still buy DVD/Blu-Rays when I find a movie I really like. I see the option to “buy” on streaming sites, but don’t trust that it will be there when I want to watch it?

    Agreed. We have a substantial DVD/BluRay collection, some of it dating to the pre-streaming era and some later. I prefer standard DVDs to BluRay as the latter seem a bit finicky.

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  6. John Walker:
    Every now and then I get sent documents in the latest versions of Microsoft file formats (.docx, .xlsx, etc.) and LibreOffice has been able to open them all acceptably.

    Works for me also. I’m slowly transitioning everything to Libre Office. Equations have issues.

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  7. I’ve been using Open Office 4.1.3 and it has opened nearly everything I’ve thrown at it except ancient documents created with “First Choice”.

    My problem is with archived email that the government used while I was employed with them. Some variant of a mickymouse (microsoft) product. Pure hell, enough hell to just throw away the back-up disks I had of my mail. I don’t believe the backups were effective and it stored the crap on the mail server somehow because I get very brief messages OK, but the lengthy ones with diagrams and images are crap.

    I still use Photoshop 4.01 as a preferred image editing program and Photoshop 7.0 as a quick access one under windows 7.

    Me-thinks John gave them the idea as he had investments in the companies. LOL (not really)

    Seriously now, it was a logical move by those companies, but it spawned a lot of non windows based programs to come into being.

    Humans are lazy, they will take the easy way out and buy into a subscription rather learn a new operating system that would support non windows based programs.

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  8. Bryan G. Stephens:
    I have been able to open most Microsoft Word Documents with things like Libre and Open Office in the past. Does this still work, or has Microsoft locked them totally down?

    I have a bad habit of alternating Word on a work computer with LibreOffice on a home computer.   Both on Windows.   That was not a problem.

    Until I tried using an encrypted drive.   I don’t know where the trouble was, but encrypting a Word file, then trying to open it in LibreOffice on the encrypted drive, then moving the file back to an unencrypted drive to be read by Word, managed to corrupt a couple of files.   They cannot be read by either program now.

    LibreOffice also choked on a password-protected Excel file.  I never lost that file, but had to do “Save As” in order to switch between programs.   It was such a nuisance aggravation that I dropped the password.

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