Can you guarantee that you’ll always have access to your software?

March 24th, 2010 | Categories: math software | Tags:

I work for a large university in the UK and part of my job involves helping to look after our site licenses for software such as MATLAB, Origin, Labview, Mathematica,Abaqus and the NAG Library among many others.  Now, anyone who works in this field will know that no two site licenses are alike.  For example, one license might allow any member of the university to install it on any machine that they own whereas others are limited only to university owned machines.  There are lots of little rules like this and I could go on for quite a while about some of the gotchas but I’d prefer to focus this post on something close to my heart right now – the matter of perpetual usage.

Imagine, if you will, that you are the coordinator for a degree course and you are completely overhauling the  syllabus.  Part of this overhaul will concern the software that you use and teach as part of this course.  You want to standardize on just one package so that students won’t have to learn a new system every semester.  After reviewing all of the possibilities, you finally decide that it is going to be either software A or software B.  Both are powerful, easy to use, considered an industry standard etc etc.  As far as functionality goes there really isn’t much between them.  Which one to choose?

You invite your friendly,neighborhood software geek out for coffee and ask him to talk about the two software packages.  He likes talking about this sort of stuff and usually has a lot to say.  He talks about open-source alternatives, programming styles, speed, potentially useful books, other people in your field who use this type of software and so on.  Eventually he starts talking about licensing and offers the following tidbit of information.

  • Our license for Software A includes perpetual use.  This means that if our funding dried up we could stop paying our maintenance agreement but we would never lose access to the software.  Of course we’d not be able to upgrade to the latest version any more but we’d always have access to the version we have right now.
  • Our license for Software B doesn’t include perpetual use.  So, if we stopped paying our maintenance agreement then we can’t use the software anymore.  We’d have to stop using it for teaching, research….everything.  You’d have to go and buy your own license for it.

“How likely is it that we might stop funding either of them?” you ask.

“Oh, pretty unlikely,” comes the reply as he rests his coffee mug over that day’s newspaper headline “We are a big university and both of these packages are key to what we do.  I’d say we are very unlikely to stop funding either of them.”

I have a question to you all.  Would the lack of perpetual use for Software B be a factor in your decision concerning what you would use for your teaching and research?

  1. March 24th, 2010 at 17:52
    Reply | Quote | #1

    If the two pieces of software are completely tied on every other aspect as you posit, then of course you’d pick the one with the better license.

  2. lee
    March 25th, 2010 at 00:22
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Well, lets see…. Do I expect my Toyota dealer to come over and disable my car because I stopped going to him for oil changes? I know that some vendors force you to keep paying for the privilege of using their software, but I think the practice is indefensible! You paid for it, you should own it!

  3. March 25th, 2010 at 11:17
    Reply | Quote | #3

    @Jason I agree, but, of course, in real situations there will rarely be a complete dead-tie. I guess the question I should have asked is ‘How much does this license situation matter?’ If software A wasn’t as good as software B then would you go for it anyway because of the more secure license? I guess it depends on how big the functionality difference is but personally I always try to choose licenses that I get to keep rather than those I can only have for a year for my OWN work.

    @lee Agreed. Unless you rent it :) However, there should be an option to buy (at a reasonable price) I think.

  4. Matt
    March 26th, 2010 at 21:36
    Reply | Quote | #4

    Having been in the position of choosing between Mathematica and MATLAB for courses, I can honestly say that licensing never even entered my head. Now, hypothetically, let’s assume that I was less oblivious to such practicalities than I was at the time… and, because I don’t actually know what Mathematica licenses are like, let’s assume that they are “Software B”. I still don’t think it would make a significant impact on my thinking. In this case, at least, the chances of either going away (without the university going with them) is so small that such a consideration would make no difference to the more important question of “which is better for my course?”. If I considered licensing at all, it would more likely be related to things like “can the students get their own copy at a decent price?” (hello MATLAB Student Edition!)

    Now, at some point, the question of “how unlikely is ‘pretty’ unlikely?” arises. Yes, eventually A is preferable to B, but if Neighbourhood Software Geek isn’t concerned, I’m not concerned. Even if funding for B dried up, I’d only be in serious trouble if A also went, right? So my question for NSG is how unlikely is it that we’ll losing funding for *both* of them?

  5. Matt
    March 26th, 2010 at 21:39
    Reply | Quote | #5

    Oh, and wouldn’t it be more like leasing (than renting)? You at least* get to upgrade to the new model with better mileage and an mp3 player at the end of the year.

    *or should I say “at lease-t”. Get it? Haha. I kill me.