Saving Five Billion Dollars a Day


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Mar 15, 2009 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on passing the stimulus package! I hope that the stimulus package will help the economy get back on track.

One thing that could help is to eliminate some of the approximately five billion dollars a day that we waste as a world economy with closed source, proprietary software.

How do I arrive at that figure? There are approximately one billion computers in the world, with 900,000,000 of them being desktop machines. The vast majority (about 90 per cent) use closed source, proprietary software. This means that the end user is dependent on the manufacturer to fix bugs that may be occurring or to create the enhancements that the customer needs to do their work. No one but the manufacturer can do this, because only the manufacturer has the source code of the software.

This automatically puts the manufacturer of the closed source software as THE expert in that software, and THE bottleneck to getting a solution, and helps to eliminate the competition from small and local companies.

You are a president of the twenty-first century. Unlike your predecessor, you probably used computers all through college, if not high school. How many times did the computer lock up on you? How many times did you lose the term paper you were typing, or the spreadsheet that you were developing? How much time did you lose, re-entering that information? An hour? Three hours? How much was your time worth? Even as a college student, your time was worth something!

Harvard is a pretty expensive school. I see from their web pages that they estimate yearly expenses for a student to be between fifty and fifty-two thousand dollars. That includes the $1,426 Health Services Fee, but not the $1,404 yearly mandatory health insurance package. (No wonder you know about the high cost of health care) Let's round off the total to about $54,000.

At 8760 hours in a working year for a student at Harvard (everyone knows that Harvard students work 24 hours a day, seven days a week...well, except for your predecessor....and Bill Gates...), that means your time was worth about $6. per hour. So even if you lost only one hour a day, you were still losing over six dollars of waste, because the software did not do what you wanted it to do.

Business managers have it even worse. Employers spent about $29.18 per hour (from your own U.S. Bureau of Labor, Mr. Obamba) during December, 2008. That means that the software only had to make their employees lose ten minutes of time a day to be equal to my claimed loss of five dollars a day.

What could that software do that would make these employees lose that time? We have discussed the software locking up, or crashing. But there are other issues.

Maybe the software that your employees purchased does not work on the hardware that they have. You have to upgrade the hardware. This takes time and effort, as well as a potential set of pitfalls. But you have to do the upgrade, because the manufacturer will not support new hardware coming out with their older software. And the older software is no longer supported with security fixes and patches, leaving you exposed on the Internet. Perhaps the software is then attacked by a virus. You have lost control of your software, and therefore control of your business.

You do not have to go far before you can experience this same vista, President Obama.

Perhaps the software you purchased does not interface well with the software from another system. You can not change either software product, so perhaps you try to cobble something together, or you may have to manually modify the data to get it to flow from one system to another.

I have a friend who runs a restaurant and uses a closed-source point of sale system. He spends one day a month typing in his invoices for materials purchased because the software would not let him just download the information. I volunteered to automate this process for him, but we could not figure out how to arrange the software so it could be done automatically. He still spends one day a month doing this.

Perhaps the software was not in the person's native language. Hmmm, your father came from Kenya, didn't he? He was lucky, since Kenya was a British colony, and he probably learned English early. What if he was in Ethiopia, and did not know English? A person typically works better in their own language, so it is good if the software they needs supports that language. But what if it does not? And what if the market for that language is so small that the manufacturing company does not feel it is in "their business interest" to support it?

The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic, spoken by 27 million people. When I was at a United Nations meeting in Addis Ababa in 2007, Microsoft still did not support Amharic, and said they would not until 2009. Ubuntu Linux did support Amharic, even in 2007.

With Free Software, the customer is always in control. The customer decides if changing the software to support their native language, or to have a new extension is a good business decision or not, not the manufacturer of the software. If the customer does not have the skills to do this, they can hire someone who does.

Perhaps the customer is waiting for an enhancement to the software they purchased from a very large corporation. Well, they have to stand in line with about 800,000,000 other people. They have no direct control over whether their software is enhanced the way they need, they can only try to "influence" the manufacturer to make it the they want it. Unless their name is "GM" or "FORD" or "U.S. Government"...oh, wait, I guess *you* do have some influence, President Obama...maybe.

But the smaller companies, the ones known as "Small and Medium Business", responsible for 50% of the United States (and a lot of other countries) GDP have small influence over these larger software manufacturers to change the source code. And so these small and medium companies wait, and wait.

Speaking of waiting....Mr. Obama, have you called a software company support line lately? Did you get through? Were they helpful? Did you have to assure them that your mouse was plugged in? How many times were you disconnected in the support cue? Oh, you now have an aide that does that?
How much do you pay the aide? And where was that software support group? Did they speak with an accent, and were they headquartered in India or China? Does this help American people with jobs?

Now, let us say that you are using Free and Open Source Software. The software crashes (it does happen). Instead of calling up a support line in India, you call your local Free Software support person. They have access to the source code for the software you are using. They help you find and fix the problem. Then they send the fix to the person who created the software.

Perhaps you need an enhancement to the software you are using. You can call the same local Free Software support person. They will estimate how much the extension will cost. You, as a businessman, can then decide if it is worth using the software as it is, or if you should invest in the extension. But no matter what you decide, it is YOUR decision, and not the decision of some company.

Finally, there is the issue of "spreading the wealth". You and I have actually read the Constitution of the United States. Unlike 80% of the people in the USA, we know that the Constitution was actually written to allow commerce between the original thirteen colonies. Common money, common militia, duties, excises, even that pesky patent office...all just about making money. Those "rights" that people keep talking about are all in the amendments to the original constitution.

So for your and I there is no real surprise that the United States is a bit like 50 small countries. I live in the small country of New Hampshire. Besides maple syrup (ours is better than Vermont's) and milk products (we are not called "Cow Hampshire" for nothing) we also have a certain amount of High know.....those computer things. But lately New Hampshire has a lot of computer people who are out of work, particularly software people.

On the other hand, Redmond Washington has a large number of millionaires, all created because they have learned to take pieces of plastic and imprint it with bits of data, [something like printing money] afterwards charging a lot for that software that sometimes works.

This causes a lot of money to flow out of my little country [New Hampshire] and go to another small country [Redmond Washington]. In contrast there is only so much maple syrup that Bill Gates can eat....

So what I want to do is "spread the wealth" a bit more by moving some of that work back to New Hampshire. I want to utilize more free software in government and business. Local support for local business and government, reducing the amount of wasted time through tailorable software which is collaboratively developed. It might even work for the Federal government too.

Now I am sure that a lot of people who have invested a lot of time and money into getting in bed with Microsoft will tell you how much money and jobs that Microsoft generates for the economy. Well, by Microsoft's own admission the people that know Free Software actually have better paying jobs than Microsoft knowledgeable people. I feel that part of this is due to the greater value in the solutions that can be generated, given the Free Software programmers can collaborate on answers and change the code to meet the needs of the customer.

Here is my plan to put more people to work, and eventually save money in running the government:

The stimulus package funds a contest for the best government backbone framework to be created as a Free and Open Source project. The best framework is chosen, and then software programmers local to each state help to fill in the framework on a federal, state and local level.

There are already some interesting examples of local, state and federal governments using Free Software. It might be nice to have a set of open source software packages that all 50 states use, but could tailor to their specific needs. Transparency, ease of data interchange between levels of government and states, collaboration in designing new tools, all could be possible, as well as reducing the amount of money spent on software license royalties by the government.

Speaking of royalty payments, the federal government should only purchase Free and Open Source software, only fund projects that freely distribute their software sources (unless national security is at stake), software that would allow local people to compete with major corporations on projects and support work, since local people can have just as much knowledge about the software as the large companies.

So please work with me to "spread the wealth". Let's move those programming jobs back to the 50 states instead of only two or three. I do not mind seeing some of these local programming jobs in places like Kansas, or Wyoming, or inner City Chicago. More people at work...more people to buy maple syrup.

You might also re-create the CCC (the Civilian Computer Corps) to help re-train people in how to use and develop Free Software, more software that actually works the way the customer (and that could be you, Mr. Obama) wants it to work and not the way the manufacturer thinks it should work.

Maybe we can not cut the time and effort wasted on closed source software down to zero...that is really hard. But perhaps we could save a dollar or two per person per day in wasted time and effort by tailoring software to what people really need while we are creating those local software jobs (that buy local food, local housing and pay local taxes).

You know the old government adage...."A billion dollars here and a billion dollars there, and pretty soon you are talking real money." The opposite is also true. Saving a dollar here and a dollar there makes for a more efficient organization, that makes our country more competitive.

By the way, would you look into the outcome of the Justice Department's law suit against Microsoft? Everything was going fine until your predecessor took office....

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