Proprietary software and user enslavement

Translated-adapted from the original article in Greek.

The proponents of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS for short) often accuse proprietary software of essentially enslaving the user. Let us take Adobe and Autodesk as an example: ever since they acquired companies that produced applications (often competitive to theirs), they have forced their users to move to Windows from Linux or other Unix flavors. Here, users were forced to use an operating system which, until then, they wouldn’t even consider (and I don’t know if and to what extent you can set up a decent render farm under Windows). Didn’t something like that happen with Bentley Systems, whose Microstation stopped, from version 5.0 onwards, being developed for Linux and other Unix-like operating systems? Or with PTC which ceased all support for Unix-like operating systems in 2010? Were the existing users asked? I think not…

In other cases, the changes in the way an application is used were such that they alienated existing users – see, for instance, what happened with the ribbon in recent versions of Microsoft Office. Many users, including myself, felt uncomfortable with the new user interface. Some reverted to MS Office 2003. Others tried newer versions and rejected them. Some others acted like good customers of a monopoly and got used to the new interface.

The harsh and ugly truth is that many proprietary software companies (and especially those who have the market locked under their monopoly) expect the user to accept every change they will force upon him. And yes, we are talking about forcing changes upon users, because, when you have gotten accustomed to a certain workflow for ten odd years now and suddenly the company, instead of evolving it and advancing it one step further, changes it completely without asking you, it forces its will upon you. And you are forced to shut up and put up, because all of your colleagues use this particular company’s software and the proprietary file format it has created. This means that the user will, willingly or not, end up in one of the two following solutions:

  • Soldier on with an older version he is familiar with, risking the upcoming cessation of support for it, especially when it comes to security patches, and also various backwards compatibility problems, which in turn are translated into interoperability problems with co-workers who use more recent versions.
  • Migrate to a newer version (with the associated monetary cost for the upgrade), whose interface, as I already mentioned, differs greatly from the previous one, causing some loss of productivity while the user gets used to the new one (this loss of productivity might even be permanent in some cases).

None of these two options is something a user would (or should) like. The software house, of course, has no reason to fret about it: it’s tied the user up to its product due to its monopoly (see: chokehold) on the market and the alternatives’ iffy compatibility and interoperability with its own standard – and the latter makes sense, because the alternatives’ file import/export filters that are «compatible» with the proprietary format are the product of reverse engineering, which is not always successful. The user is forced to do, literally, whatever the company dictates. If the new version is too «heavy» (oftentimes for no reason at all) and requires a hardware upgrade, the user is going to have to accept this cost, willy-nilly. If the new version is harder to use than the existing one (or even unusable) and/or introduces by default a new file format that older versions cannot – at least in the beginning – use (see the .docx, .xlsx etc formats in MS Office 2007; to view these files in MS Office 2003, you needed a plug-in, which became available later on), then the user will have to beg his colleagues to store (if they remember to do it) the files in an older format, which will make him look bad, as he will be the one who will make them take an extra step (not to mention this will even make him look like a cheapskate).

Also, what happens if the format in question just stops being supported altogether? What happens if (or when) the monopoly ceases to exist? If, for example, the company that right now enjoys a monopoly on the market goes bust (anyone remember Professional Write?) or the users abandon its application in favor of another (see what happened more than 20 years ago, when users left Lotus 1-2-3 for the vastly superior Microsoft Excel)? Then we’re looking at a tiresome, tedious, annoying and possibly costly data migration process in order to prevent the loss of old data. In other words, «de facto» file standards, which are «protected» by patents and are the exclusive possession of various companies (which, of course, don’t live forever), only guarantee one thing: that, at one moment or another, the data created by the users will be at risk of being lost, because this standard will cease to be supported.

Thus, proprietary software, especially when it’s the de facto standard due to its monopoly on the market, enslaves the user to the whim of the company enjoying the monopoly and in does not offer any guarantee to the user (who almost never reads the «End User License Agreement», which only serves to render the company completely free of any responsibility for the quality of its product and makes the user liable to paying ridiculous amounts of money to the company in case he even thinks of making a copy of the application to install it elsewhere). In the realm of proprietary software, there is no such thing as user freedom (and we are not even talking about customizing the application or modifying it to suit the user – such ideas are prosecuted as «copyright infringement»); proprietary software does not even let the user choose what kind of software (i.e. which application) he will use for his work.

Oh, and please don’t start saying «but no one forces you to use MATLAB, Word, AutoCAD, Photoshop etc». The ecosystem of the user base forces you and the lack of interoperability with other applications. When you have a monopoly, you don’t have choice – you have a one-way road.

Grumpy Open Source Guy