Software Discrimination Is Never The Answer
Last night, as I was perusing social media, a post from a friend caught my attention. It seems that the web-types at Kogan, an online electronics retailer in Australia and the UK, have tired of the additional work required to support Internet Explorer 7, and to even the score, have imposed a 6.8% tax on shoppers using IE7.
While others were celebrating the move, as a Linux user, I was appalled. "What? Appalled? You should be cheering — it's a master stroke against evil and outdated software!"
No, no it isn't. It's discrimination, and of a type that every Linux user has suffered.
According to the blog post announcing the move, the cost of supporting IE7 (i.e., the additional development time required to accommodate IE7's lack of standards support) has grown too high, not just for Kogan, but for the internet at large. IE7 is an "antique", released in 2006, and those who have failed to update deserve to be punished for their profit-draining ways.
Customers unfortunate enough to use the abhorréd browser will be presented with this image:
Admittedly, IE7 is old. It is, however, still under extended support from Microsoft, and will be through August 2014. How exactly does that differ from RHEL 3, released in 2003, which will be supported by Red Hat until January 2014? Indeed, why is it more evil than the thoroughly outdated and unmaintained packages that grace most distributions' repositories? If anything older than a year or two is criminal, why are we committing the same crime?
I won't deny that it's a pain to ensure IE7 compatibility. As a web developer, I know it well. I'm keenly aware of the time I've spent fixing sites for IE7, and what it has cost my clients. As a business owner, I'm acutely aware of the cost of accommodating niche sections of the market. I feel the pain.
I understand the allure of a stunt like this — and let's be honest, with IE7's market share at 1.5%, this is about publicity, not profit loss. That any significant portion of Kogan's customers are using IE7 is slight at best, and infinitely dwarfed by the increased attention this self-proclaimed moral stand has attracted.
However, as a Linux user, I know what it's like to be told that my chosen software is too expensive to support. We all run up against a lack of Linux support on a regular basis, and if pressed, the responsible company is guaranteed to reply with a variant of "Sorry, supporting you would cost too much." What one of us hasn't heard "We don't have the resources", "Linux users aren't a significant segment of our market", "We have other development priorities", and a million other ways of saying "You won't bring in enough money to be worth our time"?
To put the matter in perspective, take the oft-rumoured Steam client for Linux as an example. How would the Linux community respond if Valve announced tomorrow that a Linux client was available, but to recoup the additional cost of developing it, every game purchase would include a 6.8% Linux tax?
There is no question of what the response would be: A torch-wielding mob would descend on Valve, screaming about the evils of software discrimination and demanding the heads everyone involved be served on a silver platter. And they would be absolutely right — minus the head thing — because software discrimination is evil.
Cross-platform and cross-browser support is part of the cost of doing business. So are credit card processing fees, employee benefits, and the coffee machine in the break room. Taxing IE7 users because it's too annoying to support them is as evil as creating IE-only websites that shut out users of Firefox or Chrome. It's as evil as creating Flash sites that millions of users can't see. It is the evil of saying "You'd better do what we tell you to, or you're going to suffer for it."
It is discrimination, plain and simple. As Linux users, as open source supporters, as free software advocates, we should not be cheering prejudice applied to others, even others with whom we disagree. We have this experience. We have felt the same thing.
We should be the voices in the darkness saying "This is wrong, this cannot stand." To do otherwise is to give up what we ourselves are fighting for.
Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.