Who needs software as a service?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 28, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Yesterday, Slashdot posted a link to an interview with Richard Stallman. It was a general interview, in which he explained his views on a number of free software issues. However, for some reason, Slashdot chose to focus on his views about software as a service. The reason for this emphasis is unclear, since Stallman said nothing new, and the passage in which he talks as software as a service is only a small and unremarkable part of an unremarkable interview. However, while reading the responses to the link, I found myself wondering, as I often do, why people bother with software as a service when they could use free software instead.

Stallman, as you might expect, emphasized freedom:

"'Software as a service' means that you think of a particular server as doing your computing for you. If that's what the server does, you must not use it! If you do your computing on someone else's server, you hand over control of your computing to whoever controls the server. It is like running binary-only software, only worse: it's even harder for you to patch the program that's running on someone else's server than it is to patch a binary copy of a program running on your own computer. Just like non-free software, 'software as a service' is incompatible with your freedom."

He is right, but what nobody seems to have noticed is that this is a case in which choosing computer freedom is the most convenient choice as well.

If you come from the proprietary software world, then something like Google Docs might come as a revelation. You can use it from anywhere with an Internet connection without paying licensing fees, and running it is somebody else's business. Of course, you should also worry about availability and privacy, but most people don't think much about these issues. In fact, you could almost say that part of the cloud is that such issues become as indistinct as the depths of a strato-cumulus. Despite being several years old, software as a service still has an aura of novelty, and, when pressed, its users will exclaim about its convenience.

But stop and ask yourself: What do Internet appliances have that free software doesn't? So far as I can see, the answer is, "Nothing." In every way that I can think of, free software is either just as easy to use as software as a service or easier.

Both are free so far as cost is concerned, and can be used from multiple computers with no nonsense about activation or registration.

Both ordinarily require an Internet connection to start using, although you might have an install CD around that you can use to install the software you need. Similarly, signing up for an appliance and downloading a piece of software that you need take roughly the same amount of time. However, if your Internet connection goes down, then your software as a service becomes less useful, despite the efforts some services are making to provide ways for you to work offline. If you are running a business, such unavailability might cost you time and money.

By contrast, free software on your own machine allows you to keep working even if your Internet connection goes down.
Collaboration? Supporters would claim that software as a service has an edge, but what's so hard about attaching a file to an email? Or uploading it to an FTP site? Or having a conversation via instant messaging?

Besides, collaboration on documents is one of those features that people think vaguely is worth having, but in practice tend not to use. Collaborating on a document or a design in real time is annoying for everyone, and more likely to destroy a successful working relationship than produce first-rate results.

As for software quality, there's no comparison. Although they have had several years to improve, most network appliance office applications make Microsoft Works look like a sophisticated office suite. They lack dozens of features and online latency frequently make basic tasks like positioning a graphic almost impossible. Compare this crudeness to the growing maturity of free software productivity apps, and you have to conclude that the only reason that people tolerate cloud computing apps is that they either don't know the basics of common types of software or that the cost makes them tolerate deficiencies that they would find unacceptable elsewhere.

The same is true of privacy issues. Root kits and malware aside (both of which are relatively rare on free operating systems), you control the free software on your local machine. As Stallman points out so forcibly, with software as a service, you generally have no control whatsoever. The only exception are services such as Clipperz, where you are anonymous and can encrypt your data to suit yourself -- and even here, little is being done that you can't do on your local machine.

I sometimes think of software as a service is a Web 2.0 response to the threat that proprietary companies see in free software. It provides the free cost of free software, while allowing the code to remain proprietary. But, regardless of the truth of such matters, whether you are concerned with computer freedom like Stallman, or simply your own convenience at the keyboard, software as a service remains unattractive when you could use free software instead. I can only wonder why anybody bothers with software as a service now that it's no longer new.


  • Not as easy as you might think

    While we might think attaching files and using FTP is a piece of cake, I'm surrounded by people who are confounded at the simplest of email problems. They drag-and-drop images from our website into Thunderbird and then wonder why it won't send out. Most of them don't know their FTP from their WWW from their HTTP. (Yes, an apples vs oranges vs orange juice argument.) When they do manage to attach something, the virus scanners at the far end are too paranoid and refuse a jpeg because it might contain a payload, but still let it through if you zip it up (which they also rarely understand). Software as a service might not sound great to us computer savvy, but John Salesman loves that he can share his proposal and know immediately if the recipient can see it.
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