Chad Perrin: SOB

12 December 2006

the software price:quality curve

Filed under: Cognition,Geek — apotheon @ 01:09

Michael Covington makes an interesting point about the relationship between price and quality of software. Specifically, he talks about how in many tangible-product markets it’s usually a good idea to buy stuff from the mid-price range, where you’ll get the most return on your dollars in terms of quality, unless you have very specific needs only satisfied by the most expensive offerings. The unspoken corollary to that is the fact that you might also need to buy one of the cheapest, if that’s all you can afford and you simply need something without much concern for quality. He then goes on to contrast the software industry with this price:quality ratio curve.

He points out that, anecdotally, he has satisfied himself that the best software is in the outlying ranges. That is to say that the free or cheapest software and the most expensive software tends to be the best, while the mid-range is full of crap. His theory is that the cheap/free stuff is a labor of love, and thus truly inspired and high quality as a point of pride and enjoyment of the craft, while the most expensive stuff gets there by being good enough to support the prices.

What Michael Covington says is sorta true . . . except that software exists in a monopoly market. This throws a monkeywrench into things.

I’m not actually talking about Microsoft this time, believe it or not. I’m talking about the fact that proprietary closed source software is the usual form taken by mid-priced and expensive software. This doesn’t change the fact that mid-priced software will usually be lower quality than cheap/free and expensive software on average. I do agree with that estimation of conditions. The problem that arises is the simple fact that when you start getting into expensive software the curve falls apart in a monopoly market.

“Intellectual property” is, by definition, a monopoly for a (nominally) limited time. That monopoly allows vendors of pricey software to leverage real market monopolies not just in the software itself, but in software within the same class. This leads to high-end software being of very unpredictable quality: it is neither as predictably good as free or cheap labors of love, nor as predictably bad as mid-range purely money-making software without inspiration.

A man named Kevin Korb, in a LUG mailing list discussion, brought up the multimillion dollar range where often “enterprise” software is terrible quality, so atrocious it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to spend even two dollars on it, let alone two million. This is amply covered by my above modification to the theory of software quality correspondence to price: only software that achieves an effective monopoly on a given market niche is capable of rising to that price range, and with software that has such a monopoly there is little or no motivation to maintain real quality in the software. Instead, the motivation is entirely to keep money rolling in with support contracts and upgrades. Both of these revenue streams are dependent upon dissatisfaction with the current state of things, to a certain extent, which actually provides a very strong disincentive for producing software that is “too good”.

In other words, from a purely economic forces standpoint within a monopoly market (the commercial software market is currently almost entirely predicated upon the intellectual property laws enforcing nominally limited monopolies), the response to the notion that the absolute most-expensive software is some of the crappiest is “Of course it is!”

There’s an additional factor at work in determining the quality of free software as well, of course. When it’s that cheap, and that free of encumbering monopoly enforcement, it must stand or fall on its own merits. The underlying assumption of the U-curve analysis is that the cheap/free software is established and recognized to some degree: this is dependent upon people having used the free software, liked it, recommended it to others, and thus contributed to its growth into an established piece of software. In other words, it’s not just the fact that it’s a labor of love that makes the free stuff good. It’s also the fact that, by the time you’ve heard of it, it is proven in the test of evolution, on the battlefield of the survival of the fittest.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License