The advantages of free software are not always immediately apparent to all
computer users. Many people think that, since they have no interest in or
ability for working with the source, its free availability is of no benefit
to them. LWN readers, instead, tend to understand this issue well, so we try to
resist harping on the point too much. Every now and then, however, the
problems associated with non-free software hit such a level that one can
only sit back and laugh - before writing a snide article on the subject.
Wired News has been carrying the
story of a robotic parking garage in Hoboken, New Jersey. This garage
is apparently an impressive gadget, for those who enjoy this sort of
mechanical technology. It also depends heavily on its operating software;
without that software, the system cannot operate, and any cars which happen
to be inside remain there.
And that is exactly what happened. Robotic Parking Systems, the company
which owns said software, decided that the time had come to raise its
rates. The city disagreed, and talks between the two came to an ugly
point. Once the old contract ran out and Robotic's staff were escorted from the scene,
the garage was no longer operable and hundreds of cars were left imprisoned
inside. Robotic claimed that any attempt to operate the garage constituted
copyright infringement, since the city no longer had a license to run the
As is described in a
local newspaper article, the situation was eventually resolved, with
the city licensing the software for $5500 per month. There have been
mumblings about how the city would have been better off running open source
software. A quick check shows a relative paucity of viable free robotic
garage projects at the moment, however.
A slightly older story can be found in this
South Florida Business Journal article. It describes the experience of
a Georgia medical practice, which used the "Dr. Notes" package for its
patient records. The friendly Dr. Notes people decided to raise their
support fees by a factor of four, and, when the practice declined to pay,
stopped providing the monthly password required to make the system work.
At that point, all of the clinic's medical records became inaccessible.
Impounded cars may be a major annoyance, but locking doctors out of their
medical records can lead to life-threatening situations. Holding the keys
to those records can give an unethical company a powerful weapon, useful
for extorting price increases from its customers. It is not the sort of
situation any business would want to get into, much less one which is
concerned with health care. Access to a company's critical data should not
depend on another company's continued good will.
Proprietary software will always carry this kind of risk. It is subject to
the whims of the company behind the license agreement - and corporate whims
can be subject to sudden and catastrophic change. One still hears stories
of business leaders worrying about whether they can handle the risks of
moving over to free software. They would be well advised to consider
thoroughly the risks of not moving as well.
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