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Colin Walls
Colin Walls
Colin Walls has over thirty years experience in the electronics industry, largely dedicated to embedded software. A frequent presenter at conferences and seminars and author of numerous technical articles and two books on embedded software, Colin is an embedded software technologist with Mentor … More »

The value of software

August 15th, 2017 by Colin Walls

It is interesting how different parts of my life intersect with one another. I am thinking of my working life in embedded software and an aspect of my personal life: my lifelong interest in photography. Years ago, they were very separate activities, but the move from film to digital has brought them closer together.

A particular incident occurred recently that raised interesting questions about the value of software …

Everyone has heard of Photoshop, which is the definitive software tool used by digital photographers. This product, along with a bunch of other similar tools, is quite expensive – many hundreds of dollars, which, for an amateur photographer, is quite steep. Although there is a very low cost, “amateur” version available (which is amazing value for money IMHO), many people yearn to have the “real thing”. Most of them dig deep and spend the money. However, there are always some who try to cut corners.

I belong to a local camera club and a new member advertised the availability of a range of pro quality software at a very reasonable price. I expressed interest – I always like a bargain – but said that I was only happy if it was legal, licensed and shrink-wrapped. He got back to me and was quite up-front about the fact that it was not legal – it was a “cracked” pirate copy and that many others did not have my “high standards”. When I said that I (and the club) could not support or condone such an illegal activity, he told me that all he was doing was helping people, who could not afford this fancy software, to get the tools they needed. I pointed out that this was equivalent to stealing cars for people who could only afford to take the bus.

This incident has sparked much discussion among club members about the value and cost of software. On the negative side, there were comments about Adobe “ripping off” customers. This in unfair, as Photoshop is aimed at pros, who are actually getting a good deal. From a positive perspective, club members are now much more aware of the low cost and free options available to them. They now have a clear choice: spend little/nothing, spend a lot, or break the law.

This discussion is almost directly parallel to that had among engineers and managers of embedded software projects. Why should they pay high prices for tools, when there are free options available? Can they “make do” with fewer licenses? There are lots of options, but the bottom line for embedded software developers is the same as it is for photographers: if you have the right tools, you will get the best results. For embedded software engineers, that means that they would introduce fewer bugs and find other bugs more quickly; the saved time quickly pays for the tools.

I have always wondered why many products need to have such sophisticated license management. Surely “real” companies would not pirate software, when they consider the legal implications (= costs) of being caught doing so? Certainly, at Mentor Graphics the rules are clear: using illegal software can be a just cause for dismissal. However, we frequently encounter customers who infringe the license terms for both tools and runtime software. It is clear that the value of software really is not clear to everyone.

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