Holding my data hostage

Why software licenses should not expire
8 May 2001

I bought a DAT drive from Sony last year, finally deciding that it was really important to backup my data. I paid the extra $100 for backup software, figuring that it was important to have a good, consistent, and reliable format for backup.

The software was written by a company called Veritas, who also makes the backup software in WinNT and Win2k.

Six months after I bought the software, Veritas discontinued all support of the product and offered an "upgrade" for approximately $129. They offer no support - you can't even pay them to talk to you about the product. Instead, they've created a new, equivalent product that you can buy instead.

But most importantly, there is no way to use the tapes I made under Windows NT work under Windows 2000. The data is all gone.

So, my data, which I paid lots of money to backup, was effectively held hostage to my paying an upgrade to Veritas. I was furious, of course. This is not why I paid extra money for backup software. Finding their behavior completely unacceptable, I've elected not to upgrade, and I was lucky enough to recover the data by using an older machine.

Now, Microsoft decides that their software doesn't cost enough. And in what amounts to a slipshod way of raising prices, they're adding a new provision: their licenses are no longer perpetual. Effectively, this means that my data is hostage to my license.

And this is a problem. Software that lets me own my data on my hardware is a product. I like to own my data. To give some other person the power to name an arbitrary price for me to edit it and use it would be stupid of me. And like not being able to get my data from my tapes, I won't pay extra money for the privilege.

Say you're a writer, and you're working for 3 years on a novel. And at the end, you're barely eating, you're about to get a publishing deal, and suddenly Word conks out, says, "Please insert $200." You can't get at your data, you can't edit your book, you're dead in the water. For critical business information, this is unacceptable, perhaps even moreso.

I think that software writers should hold protecting their users' work as a primary goal. In fact, in many instances, we do: In bug classification systems, "Crashing" and "Losing Data" are given equal severity, because they're both equally disastrous to the user.

Taken as a bug, "The program doesn't let me open any of my old files," is pretty undeniably severe. It takes software bugs to a whole new level.

For one thing, this model ties support of the product to a company's existence and intent to provide support. If the product is discontinued, the whole thing does a nasty belly-flop.

The idea is this: the more data you put into this system, the more it is worth to you, and the more Microsoft can charge you to get it back.

This is exactly akin to letting some guy walk into your office, set up an armed guard around your server room, and say he's going to turn off all your servers unless you give him a million dollars.

Except in this case, Microsoft is that guy, and they get to set the price.

The problem is, you have no negotiating leverage, and they like this. It means that as long as you're on their platform, the price is whatever they want, because otherwise your data is theirs.

I think that nobody should upgrade to any product using these practices, because fundamentally they put Microsoft in the protection racket business. They get to name an arbitrary price, and there's really just no reason for them to be nice about it.