About software and feudalism, Autotel

Autotel

About software and feudalism

By Myrabella (Own work) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Worryingly there has been a trend towards centralizing software distribution as popularized by the Apple App store, that generates a phenomena of feudal fashioned software fiefs. This is how this kind of software distribution is a change that needs to be understood better by the consumers.

Centralized installations

The greatness of products such as the Apple ones is that suddenly, the users didn’t have to worry about issues that weren’t the direct interest of using their computers: where in windows, to get a functionality (a music player, for example), you would need to go to internet and search in the open internet for if any particular person or company has made a corresponding software, and is serving its download to make it available, and then install it.Probably you would go through a classic installation wizard, with risks of infection and such. This search was improved radically with the appearance of centralized indexation sites: mainly google, and specifically for software; tucows, softonic, etc. (yes, we are speaking about the 90’s!). Then the iphone appeared with a centralized software listing and installation service. The process was all clean, and the user would know when a software had an update available without having to search specifically for it, nor having one of those “daemons” that windows had to use for the function of keeping updates. The other good thing about it, was that the user would instantly know all the available offer to accomplish a function, with just one search. Debian in the later 90’s introduced their APT system already for some of these purposes: it offered this centralized installation approach for linux, while still keeping the old open approach. This APT system propagated successfully and was inherited by the most popular distributions such as Ubuntu, offering also a GUI version that was friendlier, named synaptics. Windows never took this approach seemingly because the whole development of the operative system is centralized, and the installation of applications was easier than in the other systems.

Software fief

There is a big change though, when the Iphone appears: Iphones and Ipads let no longer the users to find an independently developed application and install it from elsewhere than the official app store, unless this device was hacked, of course. This would let Apple to charge securely when an app is downloaded, and the authors would be guaranteed that their work won’t be subject to piracy. For the users it is also a good deal because of how simple the App Store made the installation of new apps, this, thanks to that all these micro computers had one same hardware, so the installation processes could be standardized.

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The tradeoffs are that, as now the payment is easy, and Apple development environments are closed, there will no longer be any good quality freeware for their users, anymore. Also, most of the software sold under this approach, has deliberate limitations that will make the software less useful in order to incentivate the users to make some other purchases in order to unlock these limitations. Usually you come across the limitation when you already purchased the software, making you feel that not making this additional payment will produce a sunk cost. But in my opinion, the worst defect of this, is obsolescence: whereas you could keep on using the same very old computer with linux or windows as long as you kept the software CD’s, for the case of Apple, if your computer (including iphones, ipads, etc.) ceased to run smooth due to the update being too resource consuming (Ram, processor), you have only two options: to hack the computer to go back, or to just buy a new one. And of course that apple wants you to do so; but unfortunately this approach is very eco-unfriendly. The user ends up being captured in a software fief: he can no longer choose his operating system, or software provider. He must now follow all the strict fief rules. An Iphone can only have the Apple operating system, and install software from the App Store. Worse, it only works perfectly with an Apple computer and Icloud. Well, after all, the user was free to choose whether to buy an Apple device or other.

In the music software environment, the problem of compatibility is a big issue because obviously, in music, timing is critical. If there was a tiny compatibility error, the audio would start generating clicks and such. Steinberg came out with a great open solution; the VST technology. Anyone that has made digital music, knows them, since it has become the main format for virtual synthesizers and effects. VST’s can be understood as the pencils for someone who draws, but for digital music making. A VST is loaded in a music making software, and will work as a synth in that context pretty in the same fashion a typography would work for any word processor. Still, a person who makes a VST doesn’t necessarily know whether it will work on any software or computer that the user could be using: If the computer doesn’t have a powerful enough processor, or soundcard, the VST could cause the whole software to respond slower (imagine how it affects if your intent is to play live with a MIDI keyboard) or even worse, to suddenly freeze the whole program. This is why it is very understandable that each big music software company still make their own plugin formats different than VST, that only works for their own programs. Still, most of these programs are still able to load these VST synthesizers, but their “native” plugins, are not compatible with other software. Now, Native Instruments is taking the next step into capturing the users into their software fief when the VST plugins are in a pretty hidden sub-menu, separated from the native instrument’s VST’s. This assures that the software will run smoothly, but also obliges the user to prefer Native Instrument’s native virtual synths that will not be compatible outside their “fief”. Not only this, Native Instruments created Reaktor, which is in the same fashion as apple’s app store, a closed system for proprietary plugin development. You can download Reaktor instruments that will be compatible with all of the native instrument’s software. There is nothing bad in all of this until you realize that you are trapped in a limited space of how to create music: Maschine, for instance is designed to function in one and only one hard-coded way. If you were to perform and create music with maschine, you will be limited to make it in the Native Instrument’s way. And this is not likely to change, because Native Instruments need the software only to be explainable with their own hardware, otherwise, they will be exposed to piracy from users that could buy a cheaper, non-native hardware, tweak the software, and come up with the full functionality without paying anything to Native Instruments. Or worse, maschine could start working badly; and give a bad impression about Native Instruments. Instead, when the user buys the maschine hardware that comes with the software, the software just gets payed.

NI Maschine

The two approaches

Now we can see clearly some sort of software parties: in one side we have the open approach such as the one that has had WordPress, Linux, Arduino, Processing, etc. In the other hand we have the fief approach of Native Instruments, Apple. The first list seems to generate less revenues, have in general lower quality products (as their development is not usually well funded) that need more expertise from the user, but offers full customization and expand limitlessly their usage. The second list seems to go towards good revenues, ease of usage, but limited possibilities, customization and evolution. As a personal appreciation, I feel that is very important that each approach stays alive and healthy, as each will represent and suit different kind of people: the first for the ones that need technology as a truly deep creation tool, and the second for the ones that need technology as a practical aid for their lives. An example of this is that if you want to create music and not to worry much about how it is made, Maschine or Ableton Push are a good options. But if you need to make your own way of making music, there is no good choice; and this generates a big gap in the evolution of electronic music. The Identity of each software company field should be (and is becoming) clearer in this aspect, as an useful criteria for choice.

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