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Cheap hardware won’t stop software piracy

Who’s to blame for rampant software piracy? According to Steve Ballmer, AMD and Intel. Oh, and Dell. Charge less for the computer, and there’ll be more money to pay for Windows and Office.

Steve Ballmer doesn’t know his history.

I agree that the world needs a $100 computer. I really wish VIA would make a CPU that it could sell for $10-$20. You can’t make money selling $10 CPUs, you say? Tell that to Commodore’s MOS Technology division, the company that made the 6502 series of CPUs used in millions of computers made by Apple, Atari, and Commodore in the 1980s. Atari and Nintendo also used it in their videogame machines.

The price of a 6502 in electronics catalogs during the 1980s was around $11.95.

I agree that a cheap, basic computer would be good for the industry. In many parts of the world, even the entry-level $399 computers are extravagant. I read today that in Russia, the average monthly salary is $240. It’s ludicrous to expect to sell a lot of $500 computers in a market like that. Save 10 percent of your salary for two years and you still haven’t paid for it.

But somehow these people who can’t afford $500 computers are going to buy a $100 computer and a $500 copy of Microsoft Office.

You’ve been living in the high-rent district too long, Ballmer. You’re out of touch with reality.

I remember the days when someone could walk into Sears or any number of other places and buy a $99 computer along with a $99 disk drive (they used to be separate pieces), take it home, and hook it up to an old television for a monitor. People resorted to lots of measures to get software. Most libraries had books of type-in programs you could check out. Magazines full of type-ins were available on any newsstand. Public domain software was available too. I know one local computer store chain here in Missouri kept a library. If you spent $200 at the store, you could copy all of the public domain software you wanted.

You could buy commercial software too. It was a little harder to find than it is today, but there was a chain of software stores called Babbage’s (which became Gamestop) that had a presence in most shopping malls, and a lot of department stores had a small software section. But software could be expensive.

Most people I knew pirated software by the carload. Sure, a lot of them could have afforded to buy a couple of titles a month and build a software library legitimately. But it seems like there were always more than two must-have releases every month. Since few could afford to buy all of the must-haves, a lot of people pirated all of them.

That cheap computer market basically killed itself. People won’t buy a $100 computer if there’s no software for it. That was a contributing factor in the demise of the 8-bit Ataris. The C64 market started declining in the mid-1980s and only lasted as long as the Apple II market did. It should have lasted longer. The C64 outsold the Apple II series almost 4 to 1. But the people who bought the costlier Apples and IBMs were more inclined to buy software instead of pirating it. The software publishers went where the dollars were.

By and large, the people buying $100 computers today won’t use the money they save to buy a lot of software. Some of them will. But the majority of these $100 computers will end up running Linux, or pirated copies of Windows and Office.

I still think it’s something that needs to be done. It’s hard to get a good job without computer skills, but it’s hard to get a computer without a good job. Believe it or not, this is even true in some parts of the United States, let alone the parts of the world with smaller economies. A Volkscomputer would be a good thing. And I think the company that makes it would stand to make quite a bit of money.

But it won’t do much for Microsoft’s bottom line.

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