Are the software makers of the world getting a free ride?

As far as I know, there is not a store in which, before you shop there, you are required to read and agree to a contract that states that anything that happens to you while in the store is not the responsibility of the store itself. If there were, how many consumers do you think would shop there? And yet, every day, consumers of software are agreeing to just those terms, putting the entire onus on themselves for any defects and potential harm the program may do to the data on their computers.

Are the software makers of the world getting a free ride? And where does the responsibility of lost, stolen, or damaged data become the responsibility of those who make software riddled with flaws, security holes, and the like?

If you went to the store and purchased a vacuum cleaner, took it home, and it shredded your carpet, I would imagine you would be just a little upset. If you then found out that the same vacuum cleaner has a known history of doing this, and that many other people also had their carpet ruined, who would be responsible for replacing your carpeting? Obviously, the manufacturer. And if they did not live up to that responsibility, lawyers would be lining up at courthouses all across the world to sue them for neglect and damages. But yet, somehow, a software program, which does the same thing, is perfectly legal. Why is that?

There’s no way the people who write software can know all the programs on your computer, nor know the configuration of your computer. They simply create the software and put it out there, usually giving minimum requirements needed to run the software. In some cases, in the installation guides, they will even warn you of potential conflicts with other applications or hardware, in an effort to ward off potential problems. But for the most part the vast majority of software makers in the world do not do that.

Some will say that because of the very nature of software, there is no way any program can be 100% guaranteed to work properly. There is no company that can test their software with the multitudes of differently configured computers and applications any given user may have on their computer. And I agree, there’s no way that could be done. But the question remains, if a company knowingly puts out a product that harms other programs or your data, and they do nothing to warn consumers, should they be held legally responsible for it?

The licensing agreement we all must agree to when installing an application clearly states that they are not legally responsible, and that the end user (you and I) must agree to that before using their program. Fair enough, but when is a legal document simply a means to avoid taking reasonable responsibility for faulty goods? And can/should those licensing agreements be enforced in a court of law if it can be demonstrated that the software in question was knowingly harmful.

If you purchase a program online, and it doesn’t work correctly, how do you “return” that application for a refund? As an exercise, I went to the website, makers of Stuffit, and tried to find their policy of returning or refunding my money on a purchase. I could find nothing on their site with any information about it. Is online software purchasing, therefore, exempt from a return policy?

I would contend that the computer users of the world need a consumer protection agency that works with governments around the world to force a level of acceptable business practices by the software makers of the world. Further, that a “brand” or “mark” be set up to alert consumers when a program or company has agreed with and joined this consumer protection agency, and that they will, in fact, be responsible for their software in the same manner as any other manufacturer of goods would be. A graphical “badge” would adorn any software (online or off) package that would denote that the software is in compliance with a set of rules created to promote a safe product. Updates would be made quickly available to users when problems are found. That when consumers have questions or concerns, those consumers will be quickly responded to, and if not, that the consumer can expect a full refund of the purchase price of the software.

The software makers have had a free ride far too long, and they need to be held to the same level of acceptable product and business practices the rest of the world has to go by. That security and safety are not simple buzzwords, but a set of principles that makers of software must conform to or face legal penalties. Consumers must have more power over what is acceptable and unacceptable in the blatantly unfair business models software makers have somehow carved out for themselves.

Some will claim that this will slow down or impede the level of progress and creativity in the software world. Perhaps, but at what cost has the current level of progress gotten the consumer? Lost or stolen data. Infected files. Billions of dollars spent to protect flawed and rarely fixed security holes. (Read: Windows and Internet Explorer.)

It’s time for the software makers, be it Microsoft, Apple, and even the shareware makers, to be held to a higher level of expectation than they ever have before.

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