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Who Pays For Progress?

Paul White's Leader
Published December 2006

Every time a computer manufacturer updates their operating system or hardware platform, a throng of established software applications — including plug-ins, audio sequencers and hardware drivers — suddenly stop working. The general reaction to this is to push the plug-in and hardware manufacturers to update their products as quickly as possible, to become compatible under the new regime. But more often than not, users expect this to be done free of charge. Is this fair?

As a user, I share the frustration experienced when something you have come to rely on no longer works. Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon; after all, in the days when there were only hardware synths and effects devices, we weren't affected at all by platform changes. So why should we be penalised for following the software route? It could be argued that in many cases a software plug-in doesn't cost much less than a second-hand hardware equivalent, so surely there's enough profit margin for the designers to pull their fingers out and get the upgrades sorted with the minimum of delay? These are all arguments that I hear every time a major platform shift causes such upheavals, but there's another side to the argument too.

When you buy a piece of software, the box tells you what it will work with and what the minimum system requirements are. Often there are free updates for registered users, though where the upgrade is major, there may be a cost involved. However, nowhere on the box does it say that the software will run without modification on all future operating systems, in the same way that your car doesn't come with a warranty that says it will be upgraded free of charge to run on rails, should the government decide to radically change the transport system overnight.

Updating software takes a lot of work and also takes away effort from developing new products. Taking a more balanced view, I can't see how software developers can be expected to jump through all the hoops that a new computer platform puts in their way without being paid for the work they do. The fact that the goal posts have been moved isn't of their doing, so why should they take the responsibility? I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that they should produce updated versions of their software in the minimum possible time, but for our part, we should be prepared to pay a sensible fee to cover the cost of doing so. After all, the new operating system or hardware presumably offers some increase in performance — otherwise we wouldn't switch to it — so it isn't as though we aren't getting something extra for our cash. Even if the product is a plug-in and did exactly what it did before, the chances are that the new computer or operating system will run more of them at the same time than the old one did.

The only practical alternative is to have software used on a time-limited rental basis, providing more revenue for its upkeep, but although such a system has its proponents, I feel far more secure handing over money for something that remains in my possession for use whenever I need it. We soon come to accept the fact that our new state-of-the-art computers will be laughably outdated and worthless within three years, so perhaps we need to take a more realistic view of the cost of keeping our software up to date too. 

Paul White
Editor In Chief