How software vendors are like political parties

In a previous blog article I compared software vendors and political parties. This is a theme I've been discussing for years. When speaking to politicians I suggest they know more about software than they think, and that the most important dynamics they need to understand about software are similar to political science.

Lawrence Lessig wrote in Code about how computer code (or "West Coast Code", referring to Silicon Valley in the USA) may regulate our lives similar to how legal code (or "East Coast Code", referring to Washington, D.C.) does. While there are rare examples of individuals authoring their own code that governs their own lives, in the majority case the code is authored by one group of people and governs many people who in some way choose to be governed by that group.

How much choice people have in what team authors the code they are governed by is considered critical in legal code, with many in the west considering it worth going to war to protect their right to choose in the form of democracy. In most countries we choose individuals part of a team, with those teams called political parties.

In software the teams are called software vendors, and while not adequately understood when they purchase or otherwise acquire software they are choosing a code authoring team similar to voting for a political party. We as a society need to become more aware of of the impact of this choice (See Rushkoff's Program or be Programmed)

Critically important differences between political parties and software vendors

Your vote in an election goes towards choosing a representative, and the party affiliation of that representative goes towards determining which party will govern the entire country. With software your vote should only impact your own computing, although with interoperability issues there are sometimes unnecessary artificial dependencies created.

Much of my work with technology law has been to seek to reduce and eventually eradicate these artificial dependencies, and to otherwise protect software choice. There is no legitimate reason for one persons software choices to remove choices from others.

This is why I find software vendor specific features on the parliamentary website, or other vendor dependencies in interactions with government (Adobe-specific features in tax forms) to be so offensive. The public sector has a requirement to be non-partisan when it comes to political parties, and should equally be required to be non-partisan when it comes to software vendors.

This is also why I find artificial vendor dependencies between multimedia content and software to be offensive. This is the essence of the close content distribution platform that was confusingly called DRM or "technological measures" in recent debates around federal "Copyright" Bill C-11. These artificial dependencies do nothing to reduce copyright infringement, but do infringe the rights of technology owners to make their own software choices. It is not an infringement of Copyright for an NDP supporter to view a movie only licensed for access by Conservative supporters, and it should similarly not be an infringement of Copyright for a Linux supporter to view a movie licensed for access by Apple supporters.

This is also why I believe that interfaces (user interfaces, APIs, file formats, etc) should never be granted government monopolies, whether they be in the form of patents or copyright. Instead we should have strongly enforced competition law to enforce interoperability and disallow artificial computing dependencies.

Different jurisdictions

With Governments we have federal, provincial and municipal governments, which we could compare to operating system, application and applet vendors. For simplicity I'll focus on comparisons between operating systems and federal governments, but you can make further analogies for other levels of governance.

Some interesting history

Since 1867 there have been many changes in the Canadian federal political parties that formed majority or minority governments. We started with Liberal-Conservative party, commonly known as the Conservative party, with the Liberals forming the official opposition. It has been back-and-forth between parties with labels similar to Liberal and Conservative as the government and official opposition with a few exceptions, including a pro-conscription coalition of Conservatives and Liberals under the Unionist Party in 1917, the Bloc being official opposition in 1993, Reform official opposition in 1997, Canadian alliance opposition in 2000, and now the NDP opposition in 2011.

I recently wrote "From Pet to Nexus" where I discussed some of my observations from 31 years in the personal computer market, and some of the changes in the most popular software vendors. For personal computer operating systems Apple formed a majority around 1990 after fighting off vendors such as Amiga and Atari in the 16-bit computer years, only to lose to Microsoft and become the official opposition for much of the 1990's and early 2000's.

For many years Research in Motion (Blackberry) and Nokia (Symbian OS) held majorities in their respective markets, with Symbian commanding the lower-end (feature phones to simpler smartphones) and Blackberry the high-end (enterprise communications). This quickly changed with Apple taking the lead for many years, and more recently with Google taking the majority (already majority with smartphones, official opposition with tablets but is expected to be majority in tablets soon as well). Nokia has already given up on Symbian and is partnered with Microsoft (a distant 3'rd or 4'th place player, depending on how you count), and analysts don't predict much of a future for RIM if they stick with their own vendor-specific OS (legacy Blackberry OS or QNX).

The most important thing to take-away from this history is the fact that the majority, official opposition, and other players change over time -- and sometimes quite quickly and radically. It would be wrong to look at the current popularity and make presumptions about the future, such as presuming from statistics in the 1990's that the Liberal party would always be the government or that Microsoft Windows would always be the majority computing platform.

The decisions that the federal government and agencies like the Library of Parliament are making around IT dependencies seem about as inappropriate as the federal public service assuming the Liberal party were still the government, and ignoring (or actively trying to subvert) the current Conservative government and NDP official opposition.

My personal voting patterns

I have been a member of the federal Green Party and the Progressive Conservative party, including voting in leadership races in each. I have voted for the Liberal nominated candidate in my riding, and have given political donations to NDP candidates.

I am much more partisan when it comes to software, as I consider the political differences greater between software vendors than Canadian political parties. To see the range of political views expressed with software vendors you have to include comparisons to governing entities beyond Canada and beyond democratic countries. I realize that may sound controversial for some, but I think it is valuable for policy makers to be aware of why some people have as strong views on technology as they do.

While I have never owned a computer running a Microsoft operating system, I have offered commercial technical support to customers using Windows (Including my current employer).

While I owned an Apple II clone in the late 1980's, I have never owned an Apple product and refuse to offer any technical support. If any single software vendor can be said to have the opposing political philosophy, it is Apple -- I'm as likely to own an Apple product as Steven Harper is to cross the floor and join the NDP.

I owned Commodore computers in the 1980s, but moved to Free/Libre Software based operating systems in the early 1990's starting with NetBSD and then moving to Linux. I own some Android devices (cell phone/tablet) and a Chromebook, all of which are based on Linux but where Google has some administrative control. Google is close to that political line between what I am willing to own, unlike Apple, Sony or Microsoft based environments that I am unwilling to own. (See: Spectrum from software/computing freedom to imprisonment).

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