How much do we all pay for software?


(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

How much do we all pay for software?

The answer to this question is very simple: an awful lot, even if not all of it, nor its bigger part, it’s money and if we don’t use computers.

As far as we are concerned, the word “software” refers to any sequence of computer instructions which is coded in digits and stored inside some electronic device. A single piece of software constituted of one coherent sequence of commands, all linked to each other and designed to perform a specific task (writing text, processing images, playing digital music…) is usually called a software program. Each software program is specialized and, for a lot of reasons which will become clear later, different programs born to do the same job are frequently incompatible with each other.

What if (following the advice in this book) software programs became something that can be easily replaced without disrupting business, just like pens or paper? What if it were much easier than today to have software support or customization from many different and completely independent contractors, switching from one to another when the service is better?

The expenses to buy new software licenses and new computers every few years could be sensibly reduced, with beneficial effects for Schools, Public Administrations and businesses of all kinds and sizes, especially medium and small ones. In an ideal world, some of those savings may even end up in your paycheck or, why not, your tax bill or any stocks you might own.

What is actually happening, instead, is that many of the companies from which we buy goods or services are still forced to spend more than they could on their computers, making our bills heavier. This happens all the time, and it only takes a bit of attention to see it. Here are two of the most common examples.

The overcomputing teller

Just about everybody who enters a bank (or any other public or private service agency: real estate, insurance…) complains about all the fees popping out of nowhere which, we are told, are spent on improving customer services, to save us time and hassles and so on. So far, so good.

The next time you go to your bank or any public office, please have a look at the teller or employee desk. Very often, especially in banks, it will be a very cramped quarter in which computer, keyboard and monitor barely fit (never mind the poor employee). Nine out of ten times, there will be some labels on the computer case, declaring that the box was designed for the best operating system on the market, with some top notch processor inside.

For the record, processors are the central integrated circuits in each computer the ones which run the software and control all the other hardware. An operating system, instead, is the base set of softtware components that make it possible to start up a computer and interact with it at the lowest level. It is the operating system that starts and allows to work all these programs humans actually use to do useful or funny things.

Great, isn’t it? Bank tellers, however, only have to deal with a few standard procedures. This is why, almost always, their screen will either be filled by only one, very ancient looking, character window or a Web browser, an environment in which a computer mouse would be useless or slower to use than the keyboard alone.

In both cases, the real work happens on some very powerful but remote computer: what you see besides the teller is very little more than a keyboard and a monitor with a very long extension cord. Even very old or limited computers would be enough for that.

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