The Future of IT
[The text of this post was copied from an article of the same name at @political .]
In the here and now, the domestic US information technology industry is in trouble. Sales aren't as brisk as they once were, and the employment market is in the toilet. There are moments of optimism here and there, but when you turn back around you always find a dozen IT industry professionals out of work and wondering where the industry went. Meanwhile, Microsoft is pressing for more H-1B work visas so they can hire more foreign nationals domestically, claiming there just aren't enough qualified IT professionals available.
The commoditization of software is what inevitably led to this state of affairs. Microsoft essentially spearheaded the commoditization of software in the US, turning OSes into prepackaged "products" sold by unit. Microsoft is often credited with "revolutionizing" the industry in this manner, making it into a powerhouse by virtue of the commoditization of software, but the truth of the matter is that technology advances as it's needed, and it would have happened whether the software was sold as product units or not. In any case, this commodity profit model was only possible by strictly enforcing copyright law in a manner advantageous for maintaining Microsoft's revenue streams, and continued to be profitable only by lobbying for ever-stricter copyright law in Microsoft's favor. It's not only Microsoft that has done this, of course: every large proprietary software vendor has had a hand in it, but it's Microsoft that led the charge, and continues to lead it.
By making it a product rather than treating development as a service to the customer base (which would of course make Microsoft in current form entirely nonviable), these corporations have created a situation wherein software development costs can be kept to a minimum to provide greater profit margins in a "finished product" format. When it's a sealed-up "product", a program can be 98% old code and sold as something entirely new, it can be assembled from "parts" that are developed by anyone anywhere that simply comply with certain external behavioral standards, and can be made functional and featureful without the actual code being of any particular level of quality. As a result, close control over code quality isn't needed, and offshoring becomes entirely viable as a development model.
The copyrighted code is sold in executable form on a CD, and you are required by law to not make any copies of it except as possible "backups" in case the original is damaged. You are not allowed by law to install it on more than one computer at a time, and depending on circumstances you may not be legally allowed to install it on more than one computer ever. This maximizes profits, as the applications and OSes sold cost effectively nothing to reproduce in bulk quantities for sale, and with ever-cheaper offshoring development available, and the cost of transmitting finished code electronically being effectively zero, overhead for corporations like Microsoft gets smaller and smaller. As surmised in the linked article, the reason H-1B visas are desirable to Microsoft has nothing to do with not being able to find engineers. One of the major reasons for it is that Microsoft doesn't need to pay visa workers as much as domestic workers, so they can hire people here on a work visa to do the few things that simply cannot be done overseas and transmitted electronically, such as local project management.
All of this comes together to create a situation wherein computer scientists are in decreasing demand in the domestic marketplace, all while software vendors are telling the media that offshoring is reversing and domestic hiring will increase so that they can keep their customer base active. There's the first problem that rears its ugly head for software vendors: as the technical crowd is put out of work, they stop spending money on software. The very people they're putting out of work are a significant percentage of their customer base. In essence, the domestic software market is cannibalizing itself because of the consequences of a commoditized software profit model.
Linux has the ability to be the spearhead for the cure to these ills, to mix a metaphor. Open source software development, with Linux as its current poster child, short-circuits profit models that rely on software as a commodity. It emphasizes the value of development, and de-emphasizes the value of corporate bureaucracy, packaging, and marketing dollars. In short, it puts potential revenue streams back in the hands of individuals, and takes them out of the metaphorical hands of corporations. It emphasizes the value of the developer and the software support provider. It favors many small companies rather than a few multinational corporations, and demands local access to development and support talent.
If the law doesn't shift to exclude the growing influence of free/libre/open source software, FLOSS may just become the revitalizing influence needed by the domestic IT industry. Of course, corporations have strong lobbies, and FLOSS has almost no lobby at all, so there's no guarantee the law won't change tomorrow to make a domestic industry revitalization of that sort effectively impossible. We'll see.
As for me, I composed this article on a Linux machine.
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