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Freedom & Piracy

I was cleaning out some old e-mails this morning when I came across a link to an article I had saved last November. Katherine Noyes of LinuxInsider reported the release of 64-bit Adobe Flash for Linux. In her article, she cites a post by blogger Julian Saraceni titled “Stop pirating Adobe Software, Use Free Software Instead”. Both are quick reads and I recommend them.

Commercial software can be expensive, but in my experience, the old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true more often than not. As you might expect me to say, the price of software is driven not only by what people want to pay, but also by what authors are willing to charge. The cost of developing, testing and maintaining software must be recouped and an adequate profit margin added on top of that to keep software companies interested. That’s an economic reality.

Many people feel that software prices in general are unreasonably high. I’ve found that the justification for this belief is usually relative to the specific person’s financial situation at the time, but in many cases I agree that software is overpriced with respect to what you get for your money. Really good software is worth every penny. The perception that software prices are not fair is one of the main reasons people commit piracy.

Pirates also believe (or have to convince themselves) that they have a right to use software, even if the terms of use explicitly require a one-time or subscription payment. Have you ever thought or heard, “I need this software to do [whatever] – it’s the best/only software for this type of task – but I can’t afford it, so I’ll just use it for now.” The person making this statement is obviously dealing with a moral/ethical dilemma.

Piracy does have serious, far-reaching consequences. The most direct economic effect is felt by the authors and sellers, but economic imbalance has a way of rippling through an entire economy, through the product and labor markets in many sectors – the problem is not isolated. As piracy becomes more acceptable, a skewed sense of property rights develops. Society’s standards change and the peoples’ sense of right and wrong dulls. Theft, of which piracy is just one type, is more easily justified and thus, committed more frequently and even casually. Respect for the rights of others, and therefore respect for others themselves, is abandoned and the social contract decays.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now. Where’s the FUD? “Everyone” knows that the Linux community was started by a “bunch of hackers” and the negative connotation that accompanies that statement is well-understood. “You Linux people want everything for free!” This perception unjustly deposits the Linux community in the same class as pirates. I occasionally come across the accusation that Linux egregiously promotes piracy, though this is most often made in the context of copyright violations in the entertainment industry.

The truth is, (intellectually) Free Software is available to those who disagree with the concept and/or laws of intellectual property. Usually, Free Software is also (gratis) free or low-cost software, because intellectual protection is often what permits software price gouging. The authors are usually the first users of a Free software package, so overall quality is generally higher than one might expect. As expressed in the articles above, the availability of Free Software should reduce or eliminate the perceived “need” for piracy. Free Software is not limited to the Linux platform, but the Linux community supports and fosters this mentality explicitly.

Perhaps we can solve the problem of piracy at the root. (pun intended)

-Brandon

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ASUS On Linux & Warranties

Since the announcement that Best Buy started carrying the ASUS Eee PC 900A in their stores at a new US$299 price point (down to US$280 just yesterday), I’ve been keeping my eye on the market’s reaction. Whilst researching, I ran across several interesting posts that tie into the “Linux will void my warranty” FUD pattern. Apparently, there have been two concerns over the warranty for this line of netbooks.

The first has to do with a sticker that appeared on the bottom of some units indicating that opening the unit will void the warranty. This is unthinkable – even a simple RAM upgrade, which many folks do immediately upon purchasing an Eee PC, requires opening the access panel on the bottom. Indeed, ASUS agrees and has publically clarified that this is not the case.

The second concern, and one that I find more interesting with respect to the FUD pattern, is that ASUS will only support the default Xandros flavor of Linux. Reportedly, “Asus is not responsible for software misconfiguration, such as troubleshooting an alternative operating system.” It does not state that running another Linux flavor or MS Windows will void the warranty (in fact, the posting makes that explicitly clear), but it does show that ASUS is limited in the service they can provide if the OS is replaced. This is not much different than what HP’s warranty conditions state.

Cheers!
-Brandon

Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 8

Linux FUD Pattern #8: Linux will void your warranty

Will the use of Linux void the manufacturer’s warranty of your computer hardware? This is one fear that prevents some people from making the leap to Linux, which is why it is on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD Patterns. The short answer is, it depends; however, there are steps that you can take to increase your probability of receiving service under a warranty.

What Is A Warranty?

A warranty is a seller’s obligation to provide a remedy when a product fails to meet the conditions of the warranty. The conditions and the remedies are specific to the warranty for a product, though some warranties are legally implied and need not be explicitly expressed. The Federal Trade Commisison provides a very informative page describing warranties.

Conditions under which a buyer may exercise the right to receive a remedy usually concern attributes of product quality. Express warranties are an incentive to the buyer, because it shows that the seller is willing to stand behind its products and protect the consumer from unintended defects that arise during manufacturing or during normal use. The definition of normal (or “intended”) use may be specified in the conditions.

In the United States, Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code governs warranties, both express and implied. Sellers are legally limited in the extent to which they can disclaim warranties. Specific statutes are established at the state level. Moreover, the Magnuson-Moss Act of 1975 was enacted to make warranties more readily understood, but its application is limited to consumer (read: household) products.

Why Not Honor Warranty Claims?

Why would a company not want to honor a claim made against its product warranty? In a word: cost.

Warranties are considered to be contingent liabilities for financial accounting purposes. At the time of sale, a reasonable estimate of warranty costs can often be made. This also means that until the costs either are realized (e.g. warranty work is performed) or expire (e.g. at the end of the warranty period), the obligation to replace or repair the product in question impacts the financial health of the seller or manufacturer. Depending on the product, such obligations can be significant. Financially, expiration is much better than realization because it does not impact cash.

Moreover, the cost of troubleshooting and repairing a system with a nonstandard OS installed is higher than that for a standard configuration because time must be spent either learning to work within the unfamiliar operating environment or time is spent working around that environment. It’s also much easier to determine when a problem is not a result of manufacturing or normal use when the technician is working within a known environment as it has been (pre)installed by the seller. If you replaced the software used by your automobile’s internal computer with a variety of your own, do you really think a dealership or even an independent mechanic is prepared (much less willing) to assist?

What’s worse, if a component of a product that provides some sort of control over the use of the product for the purpose of maintaining or extending its useful life, then the replacement or modification of that component may cause hard to the product as a whole. This is obviously not a manufacturing defect and is unlikely to be considered “normal use”. The extent to which an OS fits this description depends on what functions the OS provides (e.g. teperature control).

Read Your Warranty!

Ultimately, the answer to the question lies in the language of the warranty itself. A statement of warranty is a legal document and the one shipped with your new PC was probably written with or by a lawyer. The specific conditions and remedies are contained therein. READ YOUR WARRANTY! This will be the primary source of coverage information should you decide to take a dishonored claim to the courts. If it is that important to you, read the warranty before you buy the computer and only buy a computer with a favorable warranty.

Rest assured, the company will probably steer clear of violations of implied warranty, which means that they will probably not refuse to replace items that pose grave safety hazards, such as exploding laptop batteries. Dealing with your non-standard OS is much less costly than a court settlement with your home insurance company or your estate. A motherboard or power supply that stops working altogether is not a grave safety issue and claims regarding these issues are subject to more scrutiny.

HP Case Study

An exegesis of each and every warranty provided by every PC manufacturer over time is far beyond what I can do here. But, since a Web search for ‘Linux’ and ‘warranty’ readily retrieves stories about Hewlett-Packard, and since my family has two HP laptops in the household currently, I decided to do a little research on their warranty specifically. Here’s what I found, followed by an account of my own experience with HP support.

The HP warranty is published online, so rather than quote what is on my warranty card, I thought it might be more useful for the reader to have access to the warranty disclosed publically. In the first paragraph of the “Limited Warranty” section, the application of the warranty conditions is expressly limited to hardware products and specifically excludes software and non-branded peripherals. The section continues to explain the HP guarantee, the customer’s entitlement to receive hardware warranty service, and the conditions for repair or replacement.

The “Software Limited Warranty” section near the bottom of the warranty page explains that HP’s obligations are limited to defects in the removable media (i.e. floppies, CDs, DVDs, etc.) shipped with the product, and then, for only a period of 90 days. Of course, the chance that an average PC customer is actually going to use the recovery or installation CDs for a preloaded PC within 90 days, especially for the express purpose of testing the media for defects, is pretty remote – good thing the expectations weren’t set too high for software.

That section also explicitly disclaims support for “freeware operating systems and applications.” Yes, Linux is Open Source and not freeware, but then, the actual verbiage of the paragraph refers to “software provided under public license by third parties” and that would include an aftermarket installation of any GPL software.

So far, so good. Hardware is supported and software isn’t. Uh oh…

There is a possible out for HP in the “Customer Responsibilities” section. For “best possible support”, the customer must be able to “run HP diagnostics and utilities” and even allow HP to monitor using “system and network diagnosis and maintenance tools”. No doubt, these are compiled for Windows only. “I’m sorry, we cannot fix a problem that we cannot diagnose. Good bye.”

This doesn’t mean that HP will not support you, but it does provide them with a logical and reasonable excuse not to do so. Indeed, HP reportedly clarified in early 2007 that the installation of Linux does not affect the warranty of the hardware so long as the software is not the cause of the problem being fixed.

Here is a case in point. In recent months, HP issued a recall of specific models of the Pavilion laptop due to a BIOS problem. As I understand it, the problem had something to do with the computer’s ability to regulate temperature, so units would overheat. Battery problems and other component failures were extreme symptoms. My wife’s laptop was one of the models listed, so I called tech support to schedule a repair. During the course of the conversation, I told the representative that I would remove the hard drive prior to shipment, primarily because it contained sensitive data (which was true). I also mentioned that Linux was installed and that the hard drive would be of little value in the repair process. The rep said that removal of the hard drive was acceptable. The unit was fixed and returned without incident.

How To Protect Your Warranty

Based on my experience and research, here are a few things that you can do to help ensure warranty service:

Troubleshoot the problem. If you are tech-savvy enough to run Linux, you probably know a thing or two about computers. Troubleshooting problems is a science, not an art, and the more you isolate the problem to a specific component, the more leverage you have with the warranty organization.

Buy a second hard drive. The only evidence of a Linux install is on the hard disk (unless you’ve replaced the Windows case badge with a Linux one, of course). When you buy a new PC, set up the preinstalled system, register it, remove the hard drive and store it in a safe place should you need to run vendor-supplied diagnostics. Buy and install a second hard drive for your Linux install and go to town!

Retain possession of your hard drive. Do what I did and tell them that you will be sending the unit in for repair sans hard drive. Data security is a big deal, even more so if the data in question is your employer’s data! Besides, the worthy repair facilities have their own diagnosis disks to use in lieu of a customer’s drive. You need not mention Linux at all. Of course, you cannot expect them the repair or replace a hard drive if you do not furnish the broken one.

Play it safe. Do not use software or perform other system tweeks that have the potential to harm hardware if you want the warranty honored. It is very unlikely that a standard Linux distro will cause such harm, but Linux does provide much more software access to hardware components than do other consumer operating systems. You may be surprised how easy it can be for the experts to determine how a component burnt out and the probable reasons as to why.

Cheers!
-Brandon

<< Go To Part 7 Part 9 Coming Soon >>

Disclaimer

This article contains information on warranties, but does not contain legal advice. Opinions expressed herein belong solely to the author. If you have a warranty issue that may necessitate legal action, please contact a lawyer.

El Conquistador! (Revisited)

I’m soooooo glad that the PC Weenies have taken the time to explain the Microsoft commercial! The Shoe Circus is a Mac Store slam and Microsoft’s future is a fried snack.

P.S. You probably know by now that I believe in supporting artists, and revelations like this don’t come along everyday, so please commemorate this occasion by ordering a copy of this cartoon on card stock today!

El Conquistador!

The new Microsoft commercial featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates aired for the first time late last week. I caught it yesterday morning, but was on a treadmill at the gym and couldn’t hear what they were saying, so I had to catch up on YouTube.

I usually try to link some good references for you, but there are just too many articles and ‘blog posts to cite on this one! Most claim that the ad was too expensive for so little content. I agree and would like to add that it was too long…a minute and a half! Throw in some commercial breaks and some yada-yada-yada and you have a full-legnth Seinfeld episode!

I actually got more out of the ad without sound. It appeared that Jerry was going the extra mile to provide good, personal customer service to Bill in the shoe store, explaining in great detail how a particular brand of shoe, the “Conquistador”, is quality-tested for ruggedness. I could see the gears in Bill’s head turning as he absorbed Jerry’s message and pondered how he could reap the benefits of quality-testing at Microsoft. Once I heard the commercial, however, I felt the urge to buy a pair of Conquistidor shoes and was suddenly hungry for a churro. Upgrading my OS or office productivity software was the last thing on my mind.

If subsequent commercials don’t send a clearer message, I may have to start a FUD ‘blog to warn consumers about the fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign Microsoft is waging against itself. You know, just to be fair, right?

Cheers!
-Brandon

Piracy or Marketing?

Linux is often mentioned in discussions on Intellectual Property (IP) and the protection thereof. The reason is two-fold. First, the Linux platform is often seen as the “Wild West” where there are no (enforceable) laws. The perception is that Linux makes it easier to pirate software, music, video and other digitized IP products. Unlike the analog piracy of the past, there is no (or imperceptibly little) degradation in the quality of the copy with respect to the original.

Second, Linux itself defies the very concept of IP protection due to the OpenSource philosophy held by its development community. Some believe that OpenSource advocates illicitly extend this philosophy to other, non-Open products – that they actually believe all products are intellectually-free – and therefore, that they do not and will never respect the true ownership of IP.

Now, I said all of that as a segway into this very non-Linux story. A British band out of Devon, England called Show of Hands admits in an interview that they depend “utterly” on piracy viral marketing to support ticket and album sales. I mulled this story over for a while and came to realize that this band is to the recording industry what a shareware developer is to the software industry.

A small band, Show of Hands probably does not enjoy nearly the amount of radio airtime as, say, Metallica. This means that album sales rely much more heavily on concert attendance and I’d venture to guess that concert ticket revenues constitute a much higher percentage of the band’s total revenues than for bigger names. Like shareware companies, tolerating some piracy actually earns them more money than preventing it outright.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. A big-name band does receive a lot of airplay, which can translate into fewer tours (if they like). Concert venues, being oppressively spatial in nature, can hold a limited number of humans safely and the band usually has a minimum return in mind; thus the ticket price is adjusted to allow just the right number of real fans to enjoy the performance first-hand. Not everyone can see the show, but everyone can buy the band’s albums on CD. For many bands, CD sales far outweigh concert revenues, so piracy is a much bigger threat to the band’s monetary success, especially considering that sound quality is not sacrificed. Albums re-released on CD probably sold well on cassette and possibly in LP format as well. Some groups like to repackage old material into “Greatest Hits” albums and other compilations, sometimes adding one or two “new cuts” to keep old fans buying. Like big software shops, big bands like to lock you in and repeatedly resell to you.

Enter the RIAA and other IP groups who claim to have the protection of the artists at heart. Like legislators, these groups want to represent their constituents, but all too often the only folks they get to talk to are the lobbyists and the influential. The “best interests” of the recording industry and the artists themselves begin to look a lot like what the big guys want. Forget that the small bands may be able to use viral marketing to their advantage. I know, nothing is stopping them from “giving away” their IP if they choose to do so, right?

Wrong. So-called “digital media rights” must somehow be managed to protect IP (read: imposed, because legal punishment is obviously not an effective deterrent) and technological controls are increasingly replied upon to achieve this. If it becomes illegal or highly cost-prohibitive to own or operate equipment free of IP protection functionality, the small band will have no choice but to conform, eliminating one of its most effective marketing strategies. This constitutes a barrier to entry for competition, strengthening the resale potential of established big-name bands.

What does this mean for Linux? It seems that the creators of codecs and IP protection software are reluctant to share their algorithms with the Linux community, the most-likely reason being the fear of the “Wild West” described above. If you don’t want stuff stolen from your gym locker, don’t write the combination of your lock on the door, right? The IP folks probably won’t budge on this point unless the Linux community can be trusted (read: controlled).

One last thought – if music piracy is such a big problem and Windows+Mac still has 95% or more of market share, I really don’t see how Linux is the root of that problem (no pun intended).

-Brandon

Vista FUD?

From the iPhone Savior Blog

Entering Vista City Limits - Population: decreasing

Seeking out and responding to FUD is not about slinging mud in the other direction. It’s about correcting lies, rumors and bad press. For me, it’s about providing an alternative view on things. I just happen to be passionate about Linux in particular, based on my own conversion.

It is interesting to see the tides turning though. The press used to be full of “Microsoft Does It Again!” and “Is Linux Really Ready?” stories. Now, it is Microsoft’s turn. Purusing the recent feed headlines on my iGoogle homepage, I found several examples of how the press is starting to switch sides. But then, what can we really expect? Dirty laundry sells.

Microsoft Gives Up on Vista” was the first article I read. Apparently, even Bill Gates knows when to fold ’em in light of Vista’s obvious market problems. The article goes on to note that both Microsoft’s market share and raw customer base are at stake, and that the next release of Windows will be pivotal to retaining both. Uncertainty.

Reportedly, Seinfeld will become the new spokesman for Microsoft, a move that some view as a risky measure. I like Seinfeld, but this seems like an odd choice coming from a company that has always maintained a very professional, down-to-business image. I assume he won’t be doing any server ads — no, this must be for mass appeal. Fitting that his “much ado about nothing” shtick will probably be leveraged to resurrect Vista sales. Doubt.

No one likes to watch commercials, save perhaps during “The Big Game“, and avoiding pop-up ads while surfing the ‘Net is the modern equivalent to those VCRs that included a feature to skip commercials while recording. Ad blockers are common and can be an effective safety feature against pop-ups that employ social engineering techniques to allow hackers access your system. IE8 is drawing criticism from advertisers that claim that the enhanced privacy feature “InPrivate” could seriously affect advertising revenues that ultimately fund many (“free”) Web services. This could have a ripple-effect on the economy, some say. Fear.

Admittedly, these are subtle examples, not outright Windows-bashing campaigns and it’s not like the headlines are chock full of anti-Microsoft rhetoric, but these sorts of stories could be the first hints of a trend in that direction. What is important in the long-run is the substance (or lack thereof) that supports the FUD.