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Who will pay for software?

Saturday, May 24, 2003 by Dave Winer.

Who will pay? Permalink to Who will pay?

For the last few weeks I've been asking anyone who will listen if it isn't weird that our economy is based on software, more and more, yet users don't want to pay for software.

In the same breath I express sympathy for the music industry, because they're going through the same devaluation we went through in software in the 80s and 90s. An average song is a bit bigger than the average software program of ten or twenty years ago, so it has taken a while for the distribution pipes to catch up. Today songs travel freely over the Internet, some people are optimistic about people paying -- I am not.

In the NY Times on Thursday, a stirring op-ed piece by Ellen Ullman, about what we've lost in software. In the 90s it was common for two or three generations of software developers to work in the same organization. There was a handing-down of ideas, practices, tradition -- the verbal history of how things came to be as they are, Ullman says. After the dotcom bust software is becoming a detail, again, something that workmen do, not artists. We lost something important when our folk heroes became the 20-something instant-multi-billionaire CEO. There's so much more to software than that, there really is. As I mentioned above, our whole economy is based on it. Our culture is too.

I went to academia to re-find my roots, to find something that worked, to see if it can work again. In the 60s and 70s at Stanford University, professors worked with students to find ideas worth implementing. Financiers invested (see correction), and gave back to the university so the next generation of technology entrepreneurs could be educated, nutured and launched. Today the challenge is more subtle, we're at a point of convergence where the liberal arts, music, writing, film; are ready to merge with the technological arts. That's why a university like Harvard is so well-positioned to lead the way in a rebirth of the university-rooted incubation system for technology.

Ultimately we'll have to find an answer to this question, or find that it has no answer. Who will pay for software and how will they pay? Today software and music, software and writing, software and all kinds of creativity, are indistinguishable. There is no clear line dilineating where one ends and the other starts. Nor is there a line between people. To be creative in either technology or the arts requires an understanding of both.

Dave Winer

PS: Thanks to Chris Lydon for a great lunch conversation yesterday where all this came together for me.

PPS: There's an addendum to this column.

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