Is Low Quality in Italian Academia related to the choice of Low Quality Software?
Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi wrote an interesting paper titled “L-worlds: The curious preference for low quality and its norms” . The paper describes how in Italian universities (and large portions of Italian life) there are covert agreements that both parties in a transaction (the employee and the employer or the buyer and the seller) will deliver less than agreed while pretending that they are offering the agreed exchange. People who offer high quality in exchanges are discriminated against because they make people who offer low quality in exchange feel guilty.
Nathan suggests that this is the explanation for people choosing to pay for inferior software from Microsoft instead of getting superior software for free . Now it does seem quite plausible that someone who is offering low quality goods in the manner of Italian academia would refuse to consider software from any company other than Microsoft, after all the easiest way of selecting software is to phone a MS representative and be told exactly what to buy. But I don’t think that this explains even a significant fraction of the people who refuse free software.
There is no direct analogy between bilateral agreements to produce low quality and the choice of MS Software because MS Software is quite expensive (they demand what would be considered a “high quality” trade in the jargon of the paper). If someone was to buy one of the cheaper laptops in Australia (around $650 new) and upgrade to the full version of Windows 7 along with purchasing the home version of MS Office then the cost of software would be almost as much as the cost of hardware. If they wanted one other MS product then the cost of MS software would probably be greater than the cost of hardware. Hardware costs are steadily falling and MS prices are only increasing, for people who use MS software we should expect that soon the MS tax will be the majority of the costs of running a typical PC.
Good Reasons for Choosing MS
One thing we have to consider is that there are people who have good reasons for using MS software. One example is the companies that depend on proprietary applications which are central to their business. When the entire company’s data is stored in an undocumented proprietary database it’s really not easy to change to a different application – even when everyone in the company knows the software to be of amazingly low quality. If the vendor of the proprietary application in question decides to only support MS Windows then it’s customers (victims?) have no choice about which OS to use.
One interesting thing to note about such companies that are locked in to proprietary software is that the amount that they spend per year on license and support fees is usually greater than the cost of hiring one good programmer. If a few such companies formed a consortium to develop free software to manage their business where each company paid the salary of one programmer then after a couple of years of development they could move to the free software and reduce their operating expenses.
Another category of users who have a good reason to choose MS is the people who play games seriously. If you want to play games then MS Windows does offer some real advantages. The price of games will usually be a fraction of the hardware cost (the serious gamers spend a lot more on hardware than most people) and MS Windows is apparently the best PC OS for commercial games. Personally I’ve found that there are more than enough free games on Linux to waste my time, Warzone 2100  is one that I currently play, and I’ve tried Battle for Wesnoth  in the past and found it too time consuming and addictive.
How a Preference for Low Quality could lead to Microsoft
I think that everyone who has any significant experience in the computer industry has encountered companies that have large areas of low quality. This generally tends to be in large corporations as small companies can’t afford the waste.
In some large corporations Linux on the desktop is never considered, even when people are hired as Linux sysadmins and there are obvious productivity benefits to having the same OS on the desktop as on the servers (even if two desktop PCs are required so that proprietary software can be run on MS-Windows). Major wrote a good satire of the corporate IT non-working culture with a comparison to medical work , it illustrates the principle of a coalition to ensure low quality. He later documented how he was sacked by the low quality coalition at a company that uses a lot of Microsoft software .
So it does seem that when customers don’t care at all about the quality of the result it does help drive some sales for Microsoft. But that doesn’t explain the market share that they have.
It takes a lot of work to get Market Share without Quality
Microsoft has spared no effort in gaining market share. Every possible effort including buying out small competitors, aggressively FUDing competition, using all manner of legal attacks (including the threat of patent suits), and deliberately breaking standards has been used. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the MS senior management are not entirely stupid, they do so many things that are unethical and possibly illegal because they know that they need to do so to maintain their market share. The result is that the market capitalisation of MS is almost as high as that of Apple – and Apple makes vastly superior products.
Given the amount of effort that MS uses to keep market share it seems apparent that they aren’t just relying on customers not caring about quality.
Should users have to Understand Computers?
My observation is that most users don’t want to know much about how their computers work. The desire to understand computers seems to be about as common as the desire to understand cars, people just want to buy one that looks good and have it work. The difference is that cars are very compatible while computers aren’t. Cars have the same controls in the same places and large parts of the design are specified by law so that they can’t differ between models. Proprietary software is usually intentionally incompatible with other software (both open and proprietary) to try and gain a competitive advantage. Hardware is often incompatible due to the rapid developments in technology and the requirements for new interfaces to take advantage of new features.
In concept it seems reasonable for someone who is about to spend $30,000 on a car and $1000 on a computer (for hardware and software) to spend 30 times longer considering which brand of car to buy. One could argue that more than 30 times as much consideration should be given to the car as most people can’t afford to discard a car that they don’t like. As people spend a few minutes considering which brand of car to buy they can be excused for spending a few seconds considering which type of computer to buy. But once a choice has been made about which software to use it’s very difficult to change to something else, while in comparison it’s easy to drive a car that was manufactured by a different company. So a poorly informed choice made at an early stage can have costly long-term affects when buying software.
If we had mandated open standards for file formats and data interchange then users would be able to make choices that don’t result in their data being locked in to some proprietary format. Such standards could be set through government tender processes, if every government agency was to only buy software that complies with open standards then the proprietary software vendors would scramble to make their products less incompatible. The result would be that bad choices in purchasing software could become learning experiences that result in better purchases in future instead of being a lock on users that forces them to keep using the same software that doesn’t satisfy their needs.
I think that the best thing about the paper by Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi is that it highlights the issue of low quality. No-one wants to be considered a loser, so maybe this can encourage people to strive for high quality (or at least try to make their work suck a little less). Regardless of the conclusion they eventually reach, it’s probably good for people to occasionally wonder “do I suck?“.
-  http://www.sociology.ox.ac.uk/documents/working-papers/2009/2009-08.pdf
-  http://www.advogato.org/person/ncm/diary.html?start=405
-  http://wz2100.net/
-  http://www.wesnoth.org/
-  http://blog.ninbtma.org/2007/10/will-i-miss-it.html
-  http://blog.ninbtma.org/2007/11/just-forward-fucking-ticket_6090.html