Storm clouds over Stallman

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation has got a lot of press this week, describing Software-as-a-Service as stupidity that would result in vendors locking their customers in and raising costs.

Stallman is known as a firebrand in the Free/Open Source Software community and often makes provocative comments to solicit a response.  I am a great proponent of Open Source, using both FreeBSD and Ubuntu Linux on a daily basis, but Stallman often thinks in an Open Source bubble and forgets the bigger picture that confronts businesses each and every day.

Stallman described Software-as-a-Service as a marketing term.  Here I also have to disagree, Software-as-a-Service is as much a marketing term as the move from mainframes to client/server – it fundamentally changed the nature of computing for a good few decades.  Mimecast spent nearly three years developing a platform before going to market (now that is a marketing term) that could provide customers with the level of granular control they are used to while providing them with an easy way to get their existing data into our platform, but also providing them with a very simple mechanism to get it off if they no longer wish to use our service.

Mimecast has a very high customer retention ratio, but no Software-as-a-Service vendor can treat their customers’ data as their own and put barriers in place to prevent the customer from pulling their data back out and moving it to a new service provider or back onto a on-premise solution.  Software-as-a-Service vendors are just the custodians of the data.  Business Units within an organization rely on IT departments to look after their data on their behalf, Software-as-a-Service is a natural extension of that, relying on an external supplier to manage the platform.

Larger organizations have had third parties manage their infrastructure for years through outsourcing agreements whereby a service provider runs some of the information technology real estate within an organization, what Software-as-a-Service has done is democratized this and provided even the smallest customer access to carrier-grade performance and reliability – if you pick the right vendor.

Software-as-a-Service vendors should use continued good customer service and continual product innovation to ensure the customer stays with their service, rather than attempting to make it difficult for the customer to move.  With Software-as-a-Service the customer is freed from expensive cycles of acquisition, integration and deployment to test new alternative vendors, giving them more freedom to move providers and not less – if you pick the right vendor.

Stallman also says: "Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's web server, you're defenceless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software,"

The issue is that many companies are struggling with the complexity and cost of managing their own computers, especially with an ever increasing number of threats to the businesses; a relentless drive for 24 x 7 availability driven by global markets and mobile computing; and increasingly tight budgets.

An analogy worth mentioning is transport.  Many of us use public transport in the UK – the underground and over ground train networks bring in over 4 million commuters daily into London alone.  Imagine if all 4 million people attempted to drive into London using their own vehicles, it would be bad for the environment, there would be an increase in road accidents (assuming the cars could even move), there would not be enough parking and there would be complete gridlock.  Extend this analogy out and imagine everyone is driving kit-cars, designed and maintained by engineers with no commercial obligation or liability to produce safe, reliable and easy-to-use vehicles.

Using a shared service makes sense in a lot of instances, but there are times where you would choose to use your own car because public transport doesn’t fully support your needs in a particular area.  What we get with public transport is a service that fulfils a large proportion of our needs, but there are always those that need to drive to work.  Public transport companies in the UK are accountable to their passengers as a part of the allocation of their franchises, just as a Service Level Agreement holds the Software-as-a-Service vendor accountable to the customer. I think what Stallman is describing is akin to a public transport company that allows you to get on the service but makes it very difficult to get off, continually charging you as they go round-and-round in circles.  Another analogy is when the public transport company provides a very good timetable and maintenance schedule to win the franchise and then lets the frequency and quality-of-service drop once they have won the business.

As I have said many times over, not all Software-as-a-Service vendors are created equal.  Before committing to a service, make sure that as a customer you still own the data and that there are easy provisions for getting your data back out of the cloud if you should require it.  Make sure that the Software-as-a-Service vendor you choose makes the data available in format and on media that you can use.

In the meantime I will continue to use my Free/Open Source Software where it makes sense for me to do so and rest easy knowing Mimecast is doing its best to be a responsible member of the Software-as-a-Service community using customer service and innovation to achieve our impressive customer renewal rates rather than making it difficult for our customers to move.