SOFTWARE RIP-OFFS!

Steve Gardner steve at gardner.demon.co.uk
Sat Jul 30 06:35:28 EST 1994


In article <318i3o$dpv at netnews.upenn.edu>, smoore at mail.sas.upenn.edu (Sean
David Moore) wrote:

> 	Why does it cost so damn much to get software for the PC (or MAC)
>       to do DNA sequence analysis? 

What a can of worms you have opened !  There is obviously a lot of feeling about
this issue, but as someone who has been firmly on both sides of the academic /
commercial fence, I would like add a few thoughts of my own.  The company I work for 
now is in a slightly different field where the prices for software are higher (in the
range of $10,000-$100,000).  My company has differentiated between academic
customers (where we offer a (very) low cost unlimited site licence), and commerical
customers (where we charge full price).  I should say that this preferential 
treatment of academic sites was a major factor in me a) distributing my software 
through my present company, and b) going to work for them.

It is interesting that this the price question is most often posed by academic 
users - the commercial users seem a lot less unhappy with the pricing policy, and 
more concerned (as I think is right) with the quality of the software and the 
responsiveness of the company to requests, support etc...

The point has been made over and over in this debate - 
why don't we support / use / insist on using only PD / shareware / cheap software.

Who are we trying to kid ?? At the end of the day software costs money to develop,
the only difference is whether the source of the money is a government grant, or a 
licence fee charged to an end-user.  Academics developing software are paid by the
government to do so, their overheads & costs are picked up by the government (through 
the University & grants), and their advertising and distribution costs are paid for 
by the government (through support of Internet).  None of those benefits are available 
to commercial organisations.  Is it any wonder that the UWGCG package or the NCBI 
Entrez system were considered to have unfair advantages over commercial systems when 
over 90% of the costs of those products were being paid for by the government ??  The
response certainly to the latter was overplayed, but this resulted from a dogmatic 
stance in both camps.

The bottom line is this - good software costs a lot to develop.  As the market is 
small (the estimates posted already are in the correct ball park) and if no-one else 
picks up your bills, this means that to be viable, the software has to be priced at 
a high level.  However, if you pay these prices, you have to be able to demand and 
get good software.  If a company does not respond to your requests, you can react
appropriately.  Companies (in general) support their code much better than 
PD / freeware, and take this as another cost that the academic groups don't see. 

Now that Mac / MS Windows / X Windows are the dominant demanded standards, good 
consistent applications are just harder to produce.  This demand for better 
interfaces more than any other factors is making it harder for the average PhD 
or post-doc to write code that is useful for more than their own personal use.  
Most people would agree that the function of government funded research is to 
advance the understanding of a scientific area, not to develop 'killer' 
applications with pretty graphical interfaces.  If a good idea comes out expressed 
in code, then great, but this is rarely the aim in this field.  A company's primary
goal is to ship the best possible product compatible with the financial constraints,
an academic group's is to generate the best possible research.

> I think that the software industry is taking advantage of the
> grant-writewr's money...sucking up to places such as the NIH for large
> contracts...telling them that there is nothing better available....
> I SAY PHOOEY!

Well - as I said before, all academic developers get programmers, machines, facilties &
buildings, advertising & distribution paid for by the government - so is the situation
really that black & white ??

In short, I don't think that going after the price is fair - the question should be
do we get value for money ?  If you don't think that the answer is yes, then don't 
buy from that company.

----------------------------------------------------------------
Steve Gardner

steve at gardner.demon.co.uk





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