Tag Archives: Software licenses

Learning in the Open

Here’s a piece I wrote for the WSJ on open source education resources. It’s part of the free section of WSJ.com.

A revolution of sorts is sweeping education.

In the past few years, educational material, from handwritten lecture notes to whole courses, has been made available online, free for anyone who wants it. Backed by big-name universities in the U.S., China, Japan and Europe, the Open Education Resources movement is gaining ground, providing access to knowledge so that no one is “walled in by money, race and other issues,” says Lucifer Chu, a 32-year-old Taiwanese citizen and among the thousands world-wide promoting the effort. He says he has used about half a million dollars from his translation of the “Lord of the Rings” novels into Chinese to translate engineering, math and other educational material, also from English into Chinese.

The movement started in the late 1990s, inspired in part by the “open source” software movement, based on the notion computer programs should be free. Open-source software now powers more than half the world’s servers and about 18% of its browsers, according to TheCounter.com, a Web-analysis service by Connecticut-based Internet publisher Jupitermedia Corp. Behind its success are copyright licenses that allow users to use, change and then redistribute the software. Another inspiration was the proliferation of Web sites where millions share photos or write encyclopedia entries.

Free Online College Courses Are Proliferating – WSJ.com

Learning in the Open

Here’s a piece I wrote for the WSJ on open source education resources. It’s part of the free section of WSJ.com.

A revolution of sorts is sweeping education.

In the past few years, educational material, from handwritten lecture notes to whole courses, has been made available online, free for anyone who wants it. Backed by big-name universities in the U.S., China, Japan and Europe, the Open Education Resources movement is gaining ground, providing access to knowledge so that no one is “walled in by money, race and other issues,” says Lucifer Chu, a 32-year-old Taiwanese citizen and among the thousands world-wide promoting the effort. He says he has used about half a million dollars from his translation of the “Lord of the Rings” novels into Chinese to translate engineering, math and other educational material, also from English into Chinese.

The movement started in the late 1990s, inspired in part by the “open source” software movement, based on the notion computer programs should be free. Open-source software now powers more than half the world’s servers and about 18% of its browsers, according to TheCounter.com, a Web-analysis service by Connecticut-based Internet publisher Jupitermedia Corp. Behind its success are copyright licenses that allow users to use, change and then redistribute the software. Another inspiration was the proliferation of Web sites where millions share photos or write encyclopedia entries.

Free Online College Courses Are Proliferating – WSJ.com

Playing the Software Pirates at Their Own Game

In the last post I prattled on about how Microsoft et al didn’t get it when it comes to dealing with piracy. So what should they do?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see a more creative approach. After all, these pirates have an extraordinary delivery mechanism that is much more efficient than anything else I’ve seen. Why not try an experiment whereby a user who buys counterfeit software, either knowingly or unknowingly, has six months’ grace period in which to ‘activate’ a legitimate version? This could be done online by a key download and a credit card. No big software downloads — prohibitive in a country where Internet speeds are glacial — and no shipping (time-consuming, and often not possible from most suppliers). Instead, a downloaded widget would scour the program the user wants to ‘activate’, check its version and integrity (I’m not talking values here, I’m talking software) and install whatever patches are necessary (hopefully done without need for a full upload.) After that, the software is legit.

Software vendors would argue that this encourages piracy. I would argue: if the user can’t buy a legitimate version of your software in the country they live in, either online or offline, should they just not use your software? Or

Secondly, I would argue that this approach is not far removed from the shareware try-before-you-buy approach whereby users get to play with software for free for 30 days or so before buying. Of course, if they want to, the user could just not pay and continue using the software. But I suspect that they weren’t the kind of customer who was going to pay anyway, so you can hardly count them as lost business.

Lastly, it may be possible to use this approach to disrupt the economics of the pirate software network by embracing the shareware model. Instead of restricting distribution of your product, you flood the market with shareware versions of your software, allowing users a grace period in which to try out the software. If users can find trial copie of OneNote or PhotoShop or whatever free in every computer shop they visit, why would they bother buying a dodgy pirate copy that may or may not work? Sure, the free version needs paying for at some point, but that’s the point. The piracy market exists in part because people don’t have access to legitimate software — certainly not the range of legitimate software — in these places.

OK, that’s not always true. There will always be pirates, and there will always be people who buy from pirates, even if the legitimate software is available next door. But I suspect a lot of people who buy pirate software buy it to experiment, to try out software. Indeed, someone living in a place like Indonesia is likely to be familiar with many more software programs than someone living in a non-pirate-infested country. It’s not that these people want this software desperately, nor that they would buy it all full price if they had to. They buy it because the price is so low, they may as well buy it and try it. Do they keep it installed? In most cases, probably not. But the calculation for Microsoft et al should be: How many of these people would buy this software if, after trying it, they liked it?

Finding the answer to that question will give you an idea of the real losses Microsoft and co are incurring in lost business. It should also make them realise that not doing a decent job of making their software readily available in a place like Indonesia — at a price that reflects the purchasing power of the local consumer — is creating this highly efficient, but highly parasitical economy in pirated software. If they can reach their customers through that economy, or bypass it with widely available shareware versions of their programs — then they may stand a chance.

The Shareware Dilemma

Shareware trial strategies are tricky. Do you give the punters 30 days to try out the product? Sixty days, like Buzz’s ActiveWords (another gratuitous plug; you’re going to have to start paying me, Buzz)? Or do you cripple (I hate the word; hobble is better) the software in some way so the user isn’t going to get full benefit until they cough up? Or nagware, where you just keep firing popups at the user until they give in?

I think the time-limited, full-featured approach is best. First off, a lot of software is downloaded for a specific task: removing duplicate entries in a PDA, say. While this may mean the punter is going to only use it once, since the task is specific and the software may not be needed again, I think it’s a mistake to limit the functionality of the software (in the case of removing duplicates, to a number of duplicates found, as does UnDupe). This merely leaves the user frustrated, since their immediate goal is not satisfied, and requires them to take a leap of faith to buy the software in the hope it will do the job it promises, namely removing all the duplicate entries.

Time-limited, full-featured is best because it lets the user get used to the product, see it in all its shining glory, and then decide. ActiveWords uses 60 days, Buzz says, because he realises that getting into the product may take longer than normal software. But there’s another element here: a lot of people download software, play around with it and then forget about it. Then they are reminded of it for some reason, perhaps finding a shortcut to it sitting on their desktop, and then fire it up in the hope of remembering what it was. I just tried that with ConnectedText, a program I cannot recall installing. Certainly I cannot recall what it did. (Looking at the website I remember now: A pretty cool personal Wiki.)

Trouble is, ConnectedText works only for 30 days. Thereafter you can’t run the program, and instead get a link to the product’s homepage. As I only played with it once, there’s no way I’m going to shell out the $30 for the full version, and yet without a lot of pleading with the developer or scratching around in the Registry there’s no way I’m going to get a chance to play with it some more. ConnectedText is now uninstalled and I guess I’m never going to know now whether it was worth the moolah.

I think a wiser approach for ConnectedText, and any other time-limited shareware trial, is to be flexible when the time limit expires. I bet that a lot more users would cough up if they were allowed more time. Perhaps a popup could say, “do you need more time? We can give you another month, if you tell us why you need it.” Or “We can give you another month, but please fill out this form first so we know you’re not just a cheapskate” or somesuch. I have seen a few examples of this, or something like this, approach. It’s good. It’s flexible, and it builds bridges with users.

The problem is not that a month is not long enough to try something out, it’s that most of us are too busy and too easily distracted to remember to test out the software in the time allotted. We want to support shareware, but not all of us have the luxury or attention span to do the legwork according to the developer’s timeframe.

The world’s biggest phishing attack?

This London bank raid seems impressive:

The investigation was started last October after it was discovered that computer hackers had gained access to Sumitomo Mitsui bank’s computer system in London.

They managed to infiltrate the system with keylogging software that would have enabled them to track every button pressed on computer keyboards.

Of course, it’s likely that there are lots more cases like this we don’t hear about. As Computerworld reports:

[Security experts] Cluley and Barnes said keylogging hacks are more common than thought, and they said the $423 million plot was probably the largest corporate case that had been made public. Both experts said it’s unclear what kind of keylogging was used.

The two speculate it could have been a physical keylogger dongle, installed by a cleaner (although that would mean the dongle would probably have to be retrieved somehow since any traffic through the company’s servers would be noticed. At least, one would hope so.)