One Hand Slapping

by Doc Searls

Adobe Systems, the world's leading supplier of graphical software, is gradually shifting its business to a subscription model, baiting customers with features and tools available only to Creative Cloud subscribers. Among the first of these is Edge Reflow, which Adobe expects to become a must-have for Web designers—just as Photoshop, Illustrator and other tools in Adobe's Creative Suite are long-standing must-haves for many photographers and graphic designers. The difference is that you own Creative Suite when you buy it. You only rent Creative Cloud when you subscribe to it.

Microsoft has been doing the same thing with Office 365. Originally built for enterprise customers, Office 365 now is available for "home" customers as well. "Your complete Office in the cloud", will work on "up to 5 PCs or Macs", and is priced at $99.99/year or $9.99/month. That's competitive with the price of Microsoft's boxed Office software, which becomes stale as soon as the next major version comes out. And, like Adobe's Creative Cloud, Office 365 baits customers with lots of features lacking in the old-fashioned sold versions of the suite.

What both want you to rent is SaaS: Software as a Service.

The tide of history is with them. Nicholas G. Carr's The Big Switch accurately predicted a shift to "computing as a utility" back in 2004, long before utility services became known as "the cloud". This always has made sense for enterprises, which can save IT costs by renting software as well as compute and data storage services. We also have a model for SaaS at the individual level, in the form of smartphone apps that are either user interfaces for cloud-based services or highly tethered to clouds for updates and data flows. While Wikipedia lists a few open-source iOS and Android apps, those are just drops in an ocean of proprietary apps and services.

In fact, even the packages of boxware you buy from Adobe and Microsoft are less owned than licensed. The collection of bits that come in a box, or are downloaded from a virtual store, are not tangible property. Instead, what you have is a bundle of rights for usage, governed by a seller to which the software remains attached by a service contract. So, the thinking then goes, why bother with old-fashioned ownership at all? Why not just rent?

We already rent many other things in the digital world, such as domain names. Here at Linux Journal, we don't own We rent it. The same goes for all the other domain names in the world. Every one is rented for finite periods of time. They can be bought or sold, but they can be possessed only so long as the owner keeps paying a domain registrar for the right to use them exclusively—meaning we rent them.

Changing software into a subscription business is a slippery slope down which control of software moves from individual owners to corporate suppliers.

Predictably and correctly, Richard M. Stallman began saying "the cloud" was "a trap" in 2008 (in this Guardian interview). Here's a sample:

But there has been growing concern that mainstream adoption of cloud computing could present a mixture of privacy and ownership issues, with users potentially being locked out of their own files.

Stallman, who is a staunch privacy advocate, advised users to stay local and stick with their own computers.

"One reason you should not use Web applications to do your computing is that you lose control", he said. "It's just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's Web server, you're defenseless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software."

Free software and open-source principles and methods don't fit well with cloud-based models of software development, deployment and money-making.

One name for the end-state of this shift is the "subscription economy". Here at Linux Journal, we've been living in the subscription economy, as have all subscription periodicals. We also have done our best from the start to make our goods as free (as in freedom) as possible. We're not perfect at that, and we may never be, but free is where we come from. (In fact Linux Journal originally was conceived, way back in 1993, as a free software magazine.) Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world lacks the same consciousness. Instead, the general consciousness has moved backward in time. In "When It Comes to Security, We're Back to Feudalism", Bruce Schneier says we "pledge allegiance to the united states of convenience" when we become "vassals" to the "feudal lord" called Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. He explains:

Feudalism provides security. Classical medieval feudalism depended on overlapping, complex, hierarchical relationships. There were oaths and obligations: a series of rights and privileges. A critical aspect of this system was protection: vassals would pledge their allegiance to a lord, and in return, that lord would protect them from harm....And it's this model that's starting to permeate computer security today.

Traditional computer security centered around users. Users had to purchase and install anti-virus software and firewalls, ensure their operating system and network were configured properly, update their software, and generally manage their own security. This model is breaking, largely due to two developments:

1. New Internet-enabled devices where the vendor maintains more control over the hardware and software than we do—like the iPhone and Kindle; and

2. Services where the host maintains our data for us—like Flickr and Hotmail.

Now, we users must trust the security of these hardware manufacturers, software vendors and cloud providers. We choose to do it because of the convenience, redundancy, automation and shareability.

He doesn't mention the phone and cable companies that intermediate our connections over the Internet, but their hearts are feudal to the core, and their enclosure plans are clear. While on the one hand they increase speeds and give us other benefits, they also have a highly vested interest in transforming the Internet from a free and open space to an enclosed one from which rents can be extracted to the max—just like they always were in telephony and cable television. At risk is the Net itself.

Ten years ago, in my LJ article "Saving the Net", I began with this:

Who Owns What?

That's the fundamental question....Much is at stake, including Linux and its natural habitat: the Net. Both have been extraordinarily good for business. Its perceived "threat" to Microsoft and the dot-com crash are both red herrings. Take away Linux and the Net, and both technology and the economy would be a whole lot worse.

Both the Net and Linux were created, grew and flourished almost entirely outside the regulatory sphere. They are, in a literal sense, what free markets have done with their freedoms.

Yet, there are some who do not care. Unfortunately, they're driving the conversation right now. Hollywood has lawmakers and news organizations convinced that file sharing is "piracy" and "theft". Apple, Intel and Microsoft are quietly doing their deals with the Hollywood devil, crippling (or contemplating the crippling of) PC functionalities, to protect the intellectual property of "content producers".

Where we are headed is toward Hollywood's model of the Net: one where we pay on a subscription basis for everything that matters, and where everybody—creators and consumers alike—need constantly to "clear rights" for usage, whether they know that's what they're doing or not. Here's more from my "Saving the Net" article:

Two oddly allied mentalities provide intellectual air cover for these threats to the marketplace. One is the extreme comfort certain industries feel inside their regulatory environments. The other is the high regard political conservatives hold for successful enterprises. Combine the two, and you get conservatives eagerly rewarding companies whose primary achievements consist of successful long-term adaptation to highly regulated environments.

Hollywood's latest subscriber-screwing success story is the Copyright Alert System, better known as "six strikes". If your ISP's narc-ware detects what it thinks is copyright infringement happening over your Internet data flows, they can punish you. The details of both detection and punishment matter less than the fact that they are spying on your private activities and can strangle your Net connection. And they can easily do that, because they have the upper hand.

So, instead of two hands clapping, we have one hand slapping.

Linux is in that hand, because Linux is in pretty much everything. Same with the Internet. Both have won, yet the promise of freedom, which drove Linux and the Net to success, is being traded for away for convenience.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the saying goes. And, right now, the silence is killing us.

Facepalm photo via