Monday, September 8, 2008

Don't bet on closed source third party software!

US Government Agency story
Sometime in the late 1990s a US government agency (NASA) made a decision to go with a certain set of form software. Basically, this software allowed a person to use a desktop application to easily generate complex government form with data fields. The ability to easily generate paper forms that could be effortlessly converted to PDF was allowed via Adobe Acrobat Professional. All was good.

Over the next few years hundreds, perhaps thousands of forms were generated this way. A few select staff of the agency became experts in creating these forms, or converting existing paper forms into this system. Changes required for whatever reason were easily and quickly implemented, and the forms reached a pinnacle of quality. All was good.

Then, in late 2004, the company that made agency's chosen form software was purchased out by a competitor. And the first thing the purchasing company did was to cancel the products of their competitor. You couldn't buy the forms product, nor could you get support. The product was dead.

At the agency's HQ, the person using the forms software left the agency for other things. The purchased copy/copies of the forms software was somehow lost. This meant that making any changes to agency HQ forms would require rebuilding forms from scratch. Since government forms are complex, you are talking about hundreds of hours of work, especially when stuck with limiting tools such as Microsoft Word, a tool not designed for this kind of work.

At this point I stopped paying attention because it was too depressing. My guess is that the agency fixed the problem with Microsoft Word, since it was already paid for, even though using it for this role is not very efficient. Or they might have a different solution, and I pray its something good, something in the open source arena, because then even if the project collapses, writing a migration system to pull your data out is a bit easier since you have access to the source code.

This sort of thing happens from time to time. People bet on close source third party software and it nails them hard. And sometimes they don't even realize its happening...

Democracy story
Let us imagine a powerful nation which decides to rid itself of paper or mechanical ballots and go modern and electronic. They pick a security firm to deliver computerized voting machines. The delivered voting machines were pretty much proven insecure and the tallying code was beyond review since it was compiled, patented, and closed. Electoral workers and security analysts both complained that since the code was closed, there was no way to ensure that election counts were accurately tallied.

Yes, I'm talking about Diebold in the United States.

Getting past the rather intimidating security issues, the issue of closed source tallying code is terrifying. How do we know that the systems can't be used for doctoring elections? Because Diebold says so? Even if everyone implicitly trusted Diebold, do we really want to bet our future on just one small group of hidden people when the whole country could be vetting their code?

Flashpaper Story
Until I moved to Mac OS X in 2007 I hated Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). It didn't seem very portable, the readers were slow, and just displaying it even in modern computers slow my machine down horrifically.

And yet, back in 2002 Blue Pacific released Flashprinter which Macromedia bought and released as Flashpaper. The beauty of it was that it was part of the Flash system, which meant that any browser that supported Flash (all of them I think) supported Flashpaper documents. It printed out nicely, displayed beautifully, was lighter than PDF, and tools were easy to write for it.

In December of 2005, Adobe bought out Macromedia. Amazingly, they didn't cancel Flashpaper right away. Nope, they waited until September of 2008 to cancel this competitor to PDF. Of course, most of us shied away from Flashpaper, since the writing was on the wall.

Not everyone shied away. Young internet startups specializing in documentation seem to have really focused on the technology. What the heck were they thinking? Didn't their Venture Capitalists (VC) examine the technology base at all? I'm hoping they have alternatives ready soon, but my guess is that at least one new venture is going to fail as a VC pulls out his money and rethinks how they do analysis of proposed efforts going forward.

This isn't to say that closed source is bad. Well, maybe it is bad.

As for me, when I have a choice I use Linux. I can get away with doing my code in open source text editors (although I do prefer the relatively inexpensive and superlative closed source Textmates on Mac OS X).

Note: On September 3rd, 2011 I updated this to state that the agency listed in the first section of this article was NASA.

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