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Industry Perspective: Jon “maddog” Hall

Maddog Hall is the first session "industry perspective" at the VON conference.  He’s here as Executive Director of Linux International.

He begins by recounting the history of software and computing.  From 1943 to 1977 software was an expensive, custom built item built as work-for-hire for the owners of the computers.  From 1980 to 1983 the mass market software was born, at about the same time as the micro-computer industry started to take off.  My recollection is a little different from his — I think it started a little earlier than he described.  I remember Apple II Pascal on an add-in card, around 1978 or so.  It’s a nit, though.

Enter Richard Stallman, who thought software should be free.   Maddog is now talking through the four freedoms of the Free Software Foundation.  "A lot of people have said that this amounts to communism", but it’s really more of a libertarian manifesto for software. 

His arguments about the economics of mass production, and the problems with mass production are compelling for custom software.  However, he makes the assertion that software is not a commodity because business processes are not commodities.   Many business processes are, however, identical or nearly identical from one company to the next. So the argument doesn’t really hold water for all scenarios.

Maddog advocates a return to a service model for producing software. Instead of building software products,  you would pay for copying and distribution, getting new features built, integration, training and so on… He estimates that there is probably a work force of over 30 million people able to change and modify free software.   It’s a bit of a rant about lack of service, because the software product industry says things like "it’s not in our interest to provide that service".  But isn’t this a business process / customer care problem, rather than a problem with the business model?

My thoughts?

I think he’s barking up the wrong tree.  It’s not that the business of software products is a bad business, or the business of distributing software in binary form is a bad business.  For many customers this is a perfectly viable business model, and the customers have no interest or ability to modify the software.

Rather, I think that Maddog is pointing to the lack of skilled programmers, the lack of intelligent product management, and customer service models.  His "cure" for those problems is to let anyone modify the products to suit themselves.  But the skilled workers aren’t there to do it, and free software won’t bring them.

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