Theories that piracy actually helps software producers sell software (especially games) have been around as long as piracy itself. I’ll be the first to say that software producers should be rewarded for their efforts. After all, a game is a massive undertaking these days. Gears of War cost $10 million. And that doesn’t include the cost of developing a game engine from scratch. Word I receive from those in developer circles say that World of Warcraft cost $60 million. Now this is still a far cry from today’s blockbuster movies. For example, Spiderman 3 cost $258 million to produce. But the fact of the matter is, making games costs a lot of money, and that investment should be rewarded somehow.
But I don’t want to talk about game piracy. I want to talk about Windows, Microsoft’s threat for patent litigation, and why this doesn’t make sense in today’s world. The subject has similar core issues. Microsoft has spent a lot of time and money developing their stuff, and they want to retain ownership of whatever they created, so that they can have exclusive rights for selling it. That’s where patents come in. Patents allow them to say that they created and owned a certain piece of technology. And now they’re (finally) claiming that open source software heavily infringes on some 235 patents. OK, this is old news, and Microsoft is probably just rattling sabres in an effort to somehow get some kind of strategic agreement going. But there is some interesting new insight from Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz. Last week, he described Sun’s own experience facing the open source software threat, and yesterday, he tried to explain exactly how the software world is changing.
Think a game is expensive to make? The costs of developing Windows Vista would be astronomical. It supposedly has over 50 million lines of code written by 2000 developers over five years. My game developer friends tell me that an average game has 50 developers working over one or two years. Microsoft deserves to be paid for their production, if their product works well. But people don’t want to pay, especially since there are cheap alternatives through open source (Linux, OpenOffice, etc) that are becoming more viable every day (see Ubuntu). What’s Microsoft to do? And if Ubuntu can be free, consumers are right to ask why the heck should Windows be so expensive?
Well, if Microsoft wants to keep operating the way they’re operating, they can sue the pants off the open source people to protect Windows intellectual property. A risky move because they’d create an enormous amount of ill will among the developer and corporate communities that use open source software; all the big guys use Linux. As well, it’s unsustainable. Costs for developing complicated operating systems like Windows will continue rising, whereas open source initiatives have the ability to spread development cost over a huge army of volunteers while maintaining good coordination and quality control. Microsoft’s traditional method attempts to recoup costs through selling what they’ve created. Open source tries to recoup development costs by creating a free platform on which to easily and cheaply create products or services that have their own value, value that wouldn’t be possible without free/cheap platforms (this is especially true for the web and open source projects like the Apache web server). The value is created in different ways for the two models. It’s just that in open source, the value is cheaper to make, more varied, and more scalable.
Let’s take a real-life example outside the software world: airplanes. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is quite possibly the most complicated airplane that will ever fly the skies to date. But Boeing could not shoulder the cost of designing and manufacturing the plane itself. Consequently, Boeing decided to treat all of its suppliers as engineering partners that participated in the design of the 787. They all shared the risk of the 787 project, and will all share in the profits. By distributing all of the costs and profits across hundreds of parties worldwide, Boeing ensured that it could design the plane quickly and soundly, whereas if they had taken a traditional route and tried to do the entire engineering design themselves, they would have dramatically failed.
People have found out that distributing costs and workload is the only way to make huge things work cost-effectively now. BitTorrent works a heck of a lot better for distributing downloads than do centralized servers because P2P distribution costs are shared across multiple network nodes. Complex airplane design and manufacturing is much more scalable when engineers around the world are working on different parts in parallel with each other. Game developers started taking a similar route years ago when they decided that it was cheaper to license game engines from developers like id Software and Epic Games, rather than make their own proprietary game engines. As costs rise for them, they might also follow the lead of newer players like Linden Labs, who made Second Life completely open source. For open source, the value doesn’t come out of the software that’s being produced. The value comes from what people can do with the software, once it’s finished.
Traditional software development is becoming too expensive, and one day, the big boys like Microsoft will have to start questioning whether it makes sense to continue making software the traditional way and protecting it the traditional way through legal action.