Capitalism is under fire as vendors leverage free software to get an advantage over the competition. Microsoft dealt a nearly fatal blow to Netscape Communications by giving away Internet Explorer and bundling it with Windows. Hardware vendors are using Linux and FreeBSD to increase their razor-thin profit margins, but this undermines sales of all versions of Windows as a result. Sun Microsystems is attempting to undercut sales of Microsoft Office with its free StarOffice and upcoming StarPortal.
How can profit-hungry software vendors survive in this new market, let alone maintain inflated stock prices? I believe I have an answer. My plan is for software vendors to give away all their wares and make up for the loss by selling insurance. All they have to do is keep the software proprietary and leverage the benefits of the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (For more information on UCITA, see www.infoworld.com/ucita).
The best way to illustrate how this works is through a sample sales pitch. Imagine being paid a visit by a rather large fellow (about the size of a minivan) in a dark suit with a white tie. He opens the conversation with, "The Don gives youse guys his sincerest regards and wants to know how his software is working for your business."
You reply, "We've had mixed results, but it sure helps that the software was free. We were able to upgrade the entire company in only six months because we could spend the money we saved in upgrades on labour costs. It was truly an offer we couldn't refuse."
"That is a good thing," he says. "A very good thing. Before I leave, the Don wants to know if youse feel prepared in the extremely unlikely event that something unfortunate should happen."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"You know, an accident," he replies. "These computers, I don't understand 'em, but they're complicated gizmos. Now that companies are programming some kind of remote-control off switch, youse never know what can happen. Somebody sends the wrong ones or zeros over the imitation highway, and bam! Your systems go down."
"That's 'information highway,' " you say.
"Whatever," he shrugs.
"Well, we're not really worried. We pay our bills," you reply, visibly annoyed.
Mr. Minivan continues, "Sure. But hey, mistakes happen. They can even happen during the Christmas rush. I think you'd agree that it would be a very sad turn of events for your company, because it could take us weeks to sort out the error. That is, it could take weeks unless you play ball, or rather, unless you agree to participate in our special protection program. And because youse is one of our preferred customers, all we ask is a half million clams a month."
"A half million dollars? Are you nuts? I think it's time you leave," you say.
"That is too bad. Because you never know what can happen these days. Like for example, you don't want anyone to get access to your private company data, huh? We are prepared to make sure that your secrets will not be inadvertently transferred somewhere you don't want 'em to be. Such as to our respectable business, the National Security Agency, or, God forbid, your competition," he politely suggests.
"Well, thanks, but we're not overly concerned. We've encrypted everything," you say as you open the door for him to leave.
The goon stands firm and continues, "Yes, our encryption is good. Very good. But, eh, somebody takes a lucky guess at your encryption key and who knows? Conglomopoly went out of business last month after its biggest competitor, GarageTech, got to market faster with the same product."
"Are you suggesting somebody decrypted their data and sent it to the competition?"
"No, of course not," he says. "But we heard rumors that the GarageTech CEO opened his e-mail one day, and bada boom bada bing, the schematic for the new product is sitting in his cat box."
"Inbox, cat box ... the point is, where did it come from? Who knows? But can you afford to take that chance?"
"I don't think I like what you're implying."
"I don't think you have a choice," the hefty fellow replies.
And that, my friends, smells like guaranteed income to me.
Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com.