The Soft Option
Do the software companies come up to the standard of hardware manufacturers or are we expecting too much of them? David Mellor looks at music software and how the user is looked after, or otherwise, by the supplier. The debate starts here.
Buying a piece of hardware, such as a synthesizer or mixer, is a simple affair compared to buying a program for your computer. Hardware is bought, used and then sold on the secondhand market. The manufacturer gets his money at the outset and agrees to keep the product in working condition during the first year guarantee period. After that he couldn't care less - well some manufacturers are better at post-guarantee servicing than others, but the situation is clear: buy it, use it, sell it.
With software, all is rather less clear than it could be. Take, for example, the following declaration on a MIDI sequencing package: "The disk on which the program is furnished is warranted for 90 days. The program is not guaranteed to meet your requirements and the operation of the program is not guaranteed to be uninterrupted or error free."
That is on a piece of software which cost over £200, and it is not an untypical piece of 'friendly' advice. Imagine a hardware manufacturer saying to a prospective purchaser, "Sorry mate, it will probably go wrong soon, it might not do what you want it to and if it does go wrong, hard luck!" I am by no means a lawyer, but most people are aware that as far as hardware goes we have the Trades Descriptions and Sale Of Goods Acts to protect us. Equipment has to be of 'merchantable quality', which roughly translated means that it must be reasonably well made and supported by the manufacturer's guarantee for one year. There is also a legal requirement of 'fitness for purpose' to ensure that a tape recorder (for example) will record and play back, and that if you put a specific question to a dealer about the suitability of the equipment for your intended use, then he will be answerable in court if he gives you incorrect advice.
I am sure that all this must apply to music software too but we must wait for a test case to come up in order to find out. Until then, we must live with the situation.
My first paragraph was written from the point of view of the consumer, but consider for a moment the problems the software company has to put up with.
The comparison is, once again, with hardware equipment. If you buy a mixing console, then you can only put it in one studio. Only one engineer can use it at a time and for only one function. Software is different. Hardware has a physical presence and we don't expect to be able to 'photocopy' a mixer - but many people do it with software.
Suppose you run an office and you want to use word processing software. All you have to do is buy one copy, run off a few more and distribute them to all the typists who need to use it. Is this fair? Of course not, it's like saying that the train is going to run anyway so what difference does it make if I don't buy a ticket. Nearly everyone would agree that it is a crime to break into someone's house and steal the silver. Most people would say that it is morally wrong to shoplift. There is a whole league table of crime in which software piracy seems to be very close to the bottom - not really a crime at all, in many peoples' eyes.
Let's go back to the differences between software and hardware. As I said, the relationship between manufacturer and customer is fairly clear, between software supplier and user it is rather less so. It is not difficult to pinpoint the problem areas...
"Nearly everyone would agree that it is a crime to break into someone's house and steal the silver. Most people would say that it is morally wrong to shoplift. There is a whole league table of crime in which software piracy seems to be very close to the bottom - not really a crime at all, in many peoples' eyes."
There was a time when it seemed like all new cars coming on to the market were hatchbacks. The makers had 'converged' on a solution to most peoples' personal transport needs. It is becoming increasingly the same with audio equipment. When it comes to a mixer or a synthesizer, everyone knows roughly what they want and roughly what they are going to get. It takes a study of the manufacturer's literature, an appraisal of the performance specification, and a short hands-on trial.
Buying a MIDI sequencing package, for instance, is rather different. Sequencers from different software companies can be very different in their operation. They usually achieve the same ends, but whether this is in a way that suits the individual user is a question that needs to be answered before purchase. The problem is that it's hard to evaluate software. You can check all the features from the software company's literature, but whether or not you are going to find it usable in practice is a different matter.
In a music shop, the usual way you will be invited to evaluate hardware is to be left alone with the equipment to fiddle around with it. I find that this system works well. However, software is usually too difficult to get to grips with, without a serious study of the manual. This would take too long in a shop so there will normally be someone available to give you a run-through. Catch number one...
The demonstrator will, of course, be fluent in the operation of the software, and also fluent in getting round its awkward little corners. You will think you are getting a sequencer which you can use to create a stunning new composition in 30 seconds. Not so - it's a sequencer which the demonstrator can use to create his stunning composition (which he has already 'created' dozens of times before) in the allotted time span. There must be a better way.
Some enlightened software houses provide demonstration disks, usually for a nominal cost (£5), which provide all the features of the software apart from the Load and Save functions. At the moment, this is more popular in the business (word processing, accounts, etc) field, but should become more common for music software as more firms cotton onto its benefits.
How nice it is to mess about to your heart's content in the privacy of your own studio or home. If you have to pay a fiver for the demo disk, then it's well worth it when you find out that you can't get on with the software and you have to look elsewhere. If you do like the software then often the cost of the disk is refunded when you buy the full package.
"Some enlightened software houses provide demonstration disks, usually for a nominal cost (£5), which provide all the features of the software apart from the Load and Save functions."
It is what it is - at least hardware is. If your synth works, then hopefully it will stay working for a respectable period of time. Software is, as you might guess, somewhat different. Because it is so cheap in material terms - a pound or so for the cost of the disk - it is within the realms of possibility for a software company to offer updates to the software to keep the program in line with the current state of development. This sounds like a good idea, but some companies cheat a little and sell underdeveloped software, knowing that they can update it later. What they are doing, in effect, is using the customer as unpaid research staff in their Product Development department. This doesn't just apply to computer software but also to keyboards, samplers, and other pieces of equipment that can accept software revisions. Look out for the manufacturer who makes extravagant claims that will be fulfilled "as the next software update". What he means is that he couldn't get the product properly finished in time for the Christmas rush, so he'll get round to it at a time that suits him. This, to my mind, is pretty dodgy practice.
Having got that off my chest, updates can be a good thing. For instance, some effects units are 'software-updatable'. This means that you buy the hardware, and as improvements are made to the design/features you can add them without having to worry about built-in obsolescence and part-exchange.
Some software updates, usually the "It'll be alright on the night" sort, come free. Some you must pay extra for. It depends whether you are getting a minor revision (which fixes a 'bug', say) or an extra product feature - it's up to the individual software house or manufacturer. I would say that if a manufacturer wants to show a customer how much he cares, here is a good opportunity to do it!
Another way a caring software company can show its affection is in the strength of its user support. Perhaps it is a sign that most software is too complicated for the average user, but it's a good idea if a user can have someone to talk to when the going gets rough. You can, of course, expect more back-up when the software costs £400, rather than cut-price mass-market offerings.
It's all very well to say that a software supplier ought to look after its customers, the trouble is that if people know they can just ring up and ask, they won't bother to look in the owner's manual themselves. Some business software companies have been so plagued by this that they will only offer a limited amount of free support, either in terms of days after purchase or logged telephone time.
Probably the optimum situation would be if a software house made clear what the terms of its support were in its product literature - and then made sure that the support was available. I am sorry to say that this is not always the case.
Floppy disks have a reputation for being somewhat less good at data retention than the CIA's computer. How much worse is open to debate, but if you are running a studio then you don't want work to come to a standstill simply because the sequencer won't load. Whether it is the result of leaving the disk near the monitor during that last Motorhead session, or perhaps because of that cup of lemon tea you treated it to, doesn't really matter. You will have a back-up disk you can get out so that work can continue - won't you?
Copy protection of programs is a pain in the neck, but while people misuse software it is going to stay with us. The usual way a program is copy-protected is by making the disk impossible to copy using the normal operating system procedures. Hackers will probably take this as an invitation to try and defeat the protection. Of course, you could still load the program on your computer and then give the disk to your mate next door to load on his, so you could run two systems for the price of one. Some software makes sure that it needs to look at the original program disk occasionally to foil this trick.
'Dongle' is computer jargon for 'software key'. Some software packages come supplied with a key which must always be plugged into a port in the computer in order for the program to function. This is an improvement because you can make all the back-up disks you want and not be tempted into any form of software abuse because the software can only be used with the key. I'm not too keen on those dongles which have a sticker on them saying 'Be sure to insert correctly'. This rather implies that something undesirable might happen if you don't, and we all know the implications of Murphy's Law which states that if something can happen then sooner or later it will.
"Copy protection of programs is a pain in the neck, but while people misuse software it is going to stay with us."
The concept of 'off-the-peg' software being bought by individuals, rather than bespoke software for companies, is a fairly new one and it's going to take time for attitudes to settle. This is where I get on my soapbox and say that we software users must play fair and not try to get something for nothing. I have come across several people, who ought to know better, suggest that "it doesn't really matter" to copy software. Well, it does! If software companies don't get the reward for their labours that they are entitled to, then it's not just their shareholders who suffer - it's us. We musicians, of all people, should understand what copyright is for and respect it.
On the other side of the coin, software houses should examine their attitudes towards product evaluation, user support and copy protection. The more they get their act together, then the more we will buy. Unfortunately, some software houses are 'one man and a dog' operations - and they look like it! So-called home computers have entered the professional studio, at all levels up to the very highest, so professional standards are called for. I would suggest that any software house in the musical field should take a look at what's happening in the business computing field. They are several years ahead of us and things are beginning to gel. When a business user looks at software, he takes into account the price and the kind of back-up service he can expect to be included in that price.
Music software is still very much in its infancy and we need to discuss now how it will grow. Hopefully, my little article will set people thinking on both sides of the great producer/consumer divide. More importantly, perhaps we should talk to each other a little more about what we actually want. I'm not sure we are all speaking the same language yet, but we are making progress. And that's what matters.
Feature by David Mellor
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