Tag Archives: Software development

The Tilted Software Piracy Debate

Software piracy is a tricky topic, that requires some skepticism on the part of the reporter, though the media rarely show signs of that in their coverage. Here’s another example from last week’s Microsoft press conference in Indonesia, one of the prime culprits when it comes to counterfeit software:

JAKARTA (AFP) – Software piracy is costing the Indonesian economy billions of dollars each year and is stymieing the creation of a local information technology industry, a Microsoft representative said.

There is some truth to these statements, but it’s not really what Microsoft is interested in. First off, is it really the Indonesian economy that’s suffering because of piracy? One could argue the Indonesian economy is largely built on pirated software, as a kind of subsidy (like gasoline, which was until recently heavily subsidized.)

Secondly, when did Microsoft ever support the creation of a “local information technology industry”? That’s not their job — and I don’t blame them — but why hide behind this kind of argument? (Interestingly, there’s a lively Linux development community in Indonesia, but I’m not sure that’s what Microsoft is talking about here).

Some 87 percent of computer software on the market in Indonesia in 2005 was pirated, Microsoft Indonesia’s Irwan Tirtariyadi said citing a study from the Business Software Alliance, an organisation representing manufacturers.

That’s probably about right. It’s huge. It’s hard to find a company that doesn’t use pirated software. You can buy pretty much every program ever written, and I don’t know of a single person who uses a computer and who doesn’t buy pirated software. This is not to condone it, but I also only know of about half a dozen shops in a city of 12 million people which actually sell legal software. And forget buying online: Most companies won’t ship to Indonesia.

Lax law enforcement and widespread corruption contributed to Indonesia clocking in with the fifth highest rate of software counterfeiting in the world, he said, after Vietnam, Ukraine, China and Zimbabwe. “I’ve heard when police come to a shop (selling pirated software) it is closed. Basically information is leaking and this is an indication of the quality of law enforcement in action,” Tirtariyadi said.

This is part of the problem, it’s true. The malls are full of shops openly selling pirated software, often on the ground floor near the entrance, with policemen patrolling by. When a raid is planned, everyone knows about it, the shops quietly shut, cover their wares in tarpaulins and keep their heads down for a day or two. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the imminent raid is from the police or some Islamic group cracking down on the counterfeit DVD stores, which often sell software too.)

Tirtariyadi told a gathering of foreign reporters that if piracy dropped by just 10 percent, it would add 3.4 billion dollars to the economy, according to figures cited by the International Data Corporation.

Could someone please explain to me how that figure came about? To me it sounds suspiciously as if the argument is based on a false premise: That everyone who buys pirate software would pay full price for legitimate software if there was no alternative. Let me think about that: $3 for brand new software — often a collection of software — against $50–500 for the same thing, in a country where half the population earn less than $2 a day. I don’t think so.

Counterfeiting also inhibited an “inventive culture” and the development of a strong local information technology (IT) industry here, he said. “Some students like to create new software but three months later they find it’s pirated,” he said.

True, there is definitely an inhibiting factor. I wrote a year or so ago about a guy developing a machine translation program which wasn’t bad, but which required him to spend at least half his time developing anti-piracy features in the software. But I still think this is a disingenuous argument. Let’s face it: Microsoft (and Adobe, and all the other BSA big boys) are mainly interested in quashing piracy of their products and building up their market share; I don’t see much sign of Microsoft actually nurturing this “local IT industry”.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has less than 100 IT companies, whereas neighboring Singapore, with a far lower rate of piracy, has between 400 to 800 such companies, he added.

This is not a useful comparison. Singapore is a highly developed country and one of the world’s technology hub. Though, interestingly, it’s not really a locally creative industry, with the exception of a couple of big names.

All this makes me realise that Microsoft et al still don’t get it. Piracy is massive; they’re right. But you don’t deal with it by sponsoring misleading press conferences and well-telegraphed police raids.

Interview With Firefox’s Ben Goodger

I was fortunate to be able to fire off some questions to Ben Goodger, Lead Engineer of Mozilla Firefox by email, for this week’s column on browsers in the Asian Wall Street Journal/WSJ.com (subscription only). Here’s a full transcript of the interview.

1) How different has it been, getting Firefox into shape, than if the operation were run as a commercial operation?

It’s been an enormous challenge for a huge number of people. Over the years, hundreds of engineers have contributed code, hundreds and thousands more testing and other types of materials, probably millions of man-hours spent. The major difference and biggest benefit to the Open Source process is that we get the benefit of those thousands of people for whom an internet of free and open standards is important. That community includes some of the brightest minds in the business, committed to improving security and user experience. Some important contributions from the volunteer effort include our visual identity (iconography, theme design, website etc), much of our distributed quality assurance effort (thousands of people download “nightly builds” and use them as their browser – a great way to find and report bugs as they occur), and our massive localization effort.

2) What is your response to people’s fear about something free: That it’s less secure, less likely to survive, less professional, less, well, proper?

The industry backing of the Mozilla Foundation by companies like Sun, IBM, Novell etc coupled with an increased awareness among the web development community (Hewlett Packard released guidelines on its web site recently advising its content authors to test their materials in Firefox) as well as accelerating adoption among users and organizations alike show that Firefox is more than a flash in the pan. The results are shown in the marketshare which continues to climb month over month, in our download statistics which if anything show an increase following the holiday period. We’re just getting started.

I’m aware people will be skeptical of something that’s free. Well, all I can say to that is: buying the CD from www.mozillastore.com is a great way to satisfy your urge to spend money and it also supports the Mozilla Foundation 🙂

3) It seems to me that innovation in software has been mainly in browsers, the past few years. Not just Firefox, but K-Meleon, Opera, iRider, Deepnet, Netcaptor, etc. Would you agree with that, and if so, why is this? And then, following on from that, do you think Microsoft have missed a significant opportunity by not really working on IE in the meantime?

I wouldn’t say that innovation has been mainly in browsers – a great number of new pieces of software that I couldn’t live without have risen in the past half decade, look at iTunes, Google, and next generation internet apps like Skype that make use of higher bandwidth connections. But you’re right, there have been significant developments in Web browsers in the past few years – specifically in the areas of making it easier to find and manage content (see Firefox’s Google bar, Find Toolbar, Tabbed Browsing and RSS integration – all ways in which we make it easier for people to get at stuff).

I think it’s very difficult to be in Microsoft’s position – they have a lot of customers who have written applications to work with their system and a precedent for not having changed their formula much, which makes movement in a particular direction a more involved proposition as they need to carefully determine the impact of their changes on the people who have written solutions specifically tailored to their system. I do think they will move however, it’s not a matter of if, but when. They see what’s going on, and they will react.

4) What of the role of plugins? It seems to me there’s been a fascinating movement of innovators just working on individual little features? How important has that been? How hard was it to make the software so people could do that? Is this the future of software?

This was one of the benefits of the architecture chosen by the original implementors of much of the UI architecture we use now, I have to single out Dave Hyatt and Chris Waterson here for mention – they among others back in the Netscape days had the foresight to see the value of an extensible system, one which after years of refinement has led us to where we are today.

Plugins are an important part of the ecosystem of Mozilla applications. They allow people to customize their software in nearly infinite ways, adding new innovations that we may not have thought of yet, or tailoring the experience to suit very specific audiences in ways that we cannot in the main line distribution. Plugins in web pages allow for a richer content experience. In short – these application extensions are part of the applications’ DNA which allow every user to have the software that makes sense for them.

5) Where do you see Firefox going? Will it continue to innovate? Will you continue to be a part of it?

We’re still working on our 2.0 plans, we have a lot of ideas, no final schedule yet. It will absolutely continue to be a beacon for Open Source Software innovation and usability. At this time, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and the talented people I work with all feel the same.

6) Where do you see the browser going? Will it replace other programs, as it seems to be replacing the RSS reader?

We will integrate services as and when they make sense, not for any other reason. At all costs we must resist the urge to go down the path of unnecessary feature creep – that’s what we have developed our extension architecture for. As for other applications, some have moved to the web such as email and photo management, and we will obviously continue to be a portal to those.

7) You’re pretty young. How easy/hard has this been for you? Did you expect Firefox to make such a big splash?

The work I’ve done on this project is the most interesting/challenging I’ve done to date, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. By extending ourselves and setting the bar not just at the level of the competition but higher we make a statement not only in the quality of the software we create, but about the value of the Open Source model of software development. I think we expected Firefox to be more successful than the Mozilla Application Suite (currently in 1.7.x) that preceded it, but I don’t think we expected it to be quite this big. Every release for the past year things seemed to get exponentially bigger in terms of popularity and buzz. We’ve now had over 21 million downloads – that’s amazing for any piece of software.

Thanks, Ben, and good luck in your new job. (More by Ben and his new job here.)

Loose Wire — Are You Being Read Or Completely Ignored?

Ever found yourself wondering if the e-mail you sent your boss/aunt/long-lost friend was actually read? Here’s some new software to help you keep tabs

By Jeremy Wagstaff, 22 May 2003

This column first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review
(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., used with permission)

If you have any obsessive/compulsive tendencies, you probably should stop reading now. If you don’t, I have a solution to questions you’re bound to have asked yourself at one point or another, such as “Has the boss read my e-mail asking for a raise yet?” or “How can I check that everyone got the invite to my Tupperware party?” and “Why hasn’t Auntie Mabel thanked me for my thoughtful, but somewhat cheap, birthday e-greeting?”. The answer: MSGTAG.

No, it’s not compulsory labelling for monosodium glutamate, that charming flavour enhancer. MSGTAG is short for MessageTag, and it’s a way to see whether or not e-mails have been read by the recipient. Right now, if you send an e-mail you have little or no way of checking whether someone received it, let alone actually read it. Some programs allow you to request an automatic acknowledgement that an e-mail’s been received — or even opened — but the option depends a lot on what software the recipient is using, and the settings. Most of the time you’re firing blind when you send an e-mail.

Enter MessageTag, from New Zealand software-development company eCOSM Ltd. Install the MSGTAG software and, in most cases, it will automatically reconfigure your e-mail software to add a glob of code to the bottom of any e-mail you send (to those of you in the know, it’s an HTML image reference) which assigns the e-mail a unique ID number. When the recipient opens their e-mail, the glob of code sends a message back to the MSGTAG server, or computer. That computer makes a note of the ID, and the time the message was received. It then matches the ID with the MSGTAG user, and the matching e-mail, and notifies the user the e-mail has been opened, and when. Voila.

I found it worked like a charm. The free version does the final step — sending a notification that an e-mail has been opened — by e-mail, whereas the fully functioning version, called MSGTAG Status, runs a separate program that lists all the e-mails you’ve sent, and then flags those that have been opened.

To me it’s a very useful tool. Having to alert friends that a party had been cancelled at the last minute, I was able to monitor who had opened their e-mails and who hadn’t. Sending e-mail to PR folk suddenly gets a lot easier since I can tell who has opened it and who is ignoring me, and who has either moved, died, or hasn’t yet figured how to use the e-mail program.

The basic idea is not new. Several other companies offer similar products: the most promising, HaveTheyReadItYet (www.havetheyreadityet.com), only works with Outlook and Outlook Express for now, though other versions are planned. The free version allows users to monitor the progress of five e-mails at a time; more than that and you have to buy digital stamps at $5 each. Another option is SentThere , which allows you either to send and monitor e-mails in the same way as MSGTAG, or to use a special mini-e-mail program. I couldn’t get this one to work. Other products, such as South Korea-based Postel and OpenTrace didn’t respond to e-mail queries, an irony not lost on me.

Still, after using MSGTAG for a week, I was hooked. Which is where the obsessive/compulsive bit comes in. I found myself eagerly monitoring my “Status” window to see whether my e-mail had been read, and then found myself wondering why the person hadn’t replied immediately. One guy, a friend I hadn’t heard from for nearly a decade, opened my mail but still, nearly a week on, hasn’t written back. He is definitely not coming to my wedding, if I have one. I can see all sorts of new neuroses coming out of all this.

That’s not the only danger. Privacy advocates claim it’s an invasion of privacy to covertly monitor when an e-mail is read. Beyond that, the argument goes, users could also find out other information about, for example, whether and to whom the e-mail may be forwarded and how long they spent reading the e-mail (“What? They only spent 10 seconds reading my account of my summer trip to Graceland?”).

I don’t really see this is a privacy issue. Send a text message from many hand-phones and you can obtain a message informing you of its delivery — which only works when the phone is switched on and in the coverage area. Likewise, sending registered mail, or packages, enables the sender to obtain similar information. Users may take some getting used to this, but I think it can only enhance the usefulness of e-mail to have some way of checking whether it actually ended up where it was supposed to.

That said, I do have some gripes: At $60 the Status program is a bit steep. And it will only work if you are using HTML e-mail — the fancy version where you can change font styles, insert pictures and view Web-page-style newsletters. And MSGTAG won’t, for now, work on Microsoft Exchange servers, undermining its effectiveness for corporate users. Having said all that, I found most MSGTAG e-mails worked, and now I’m not sure what I’ll do without it. Of course, I’m now losing sleep sitting in front of the PC monitoring whether my e-mails are getting read. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

June 26 2003: MSGTAG is no longer available in a free version. Read on here.