Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce High prices? Just stop using the software

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Why is it suddenly news that US technology companies have been ripping off customers in Australia (and, indeed, most of the rest of the world) by charging them exorbitant prices?

Could it be because some politicians have suddenly thought it would be a good idea to form a panel and act like heroes by questioning the big tech companies in public? Just to demonstrate that they are on the side of the public - an act that would certainly not be detrimental to their fortunes with elections around the corner?

Anyone who is half-savvy knows that this kind of over-charging is an old game. The local dealers are no angels either. Back in 1999, I recall buying a CD-ROM drive from Harvey Norman for $110 for a wealthy client of mine. A few weeks later, after being introduced to the wonderful world of computer swap meets by a friend who was more down-to-earth, I  bought a similar drive for $60.

And a month or two later, by chance, another friend who was in the computer retail business sold me a drive, which also had casing to enable its use as an external drive, for $35. He said he had been given a whole box of the drives towards settlement of a debt by a trader who had gone out of business.

Look at the difference in those prices. Even my friend made his margin. Harvey Norman was a good 200% ahead of him on prices.

Technology repair shops do it too. A decade back, I watched a computer repair shop owner charge a woman $60 for removing a floppy drive which was stuck in her laptop. She came into the shop at 9am and he asked her to come back at 3pm to pick it up. All for a job which required about 20 seconds of jiggling around with a straightened paper clip.

Ripping off is in the blood when it comes to the tech business. People are hard-wired to do it. Consider the fact that provision of e-tax software for Mac users this year cost the ATO $52 million. (These worthies are not interested in a web-based solution that would cover every single computer user - though their counterparts in New Zealand have been somewhat more insightful.)

But leave that aside. There's a good way to get out of this morass of higher prices. Whinging may  be a favourite pastime but it isn't going to bring the price down.

There's a more fundamental way of doing it - just stop buying the product. Stop using it.

Windows costing too much? Switch to a free operating system like GNU/Linux or any of the BSDs. The latter are free not only in terms of money but also give you a chance to access the source code and change what you like.

Microsoft Office costing the earth? Move to the free office suites LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice. Hardly anyone uses more than 20 per cent of the features that are available in MS Office anyway. And the free suites do not lock you in to proprietary formats.

Ask those politicians why the Australian government itself is so beholden to Microsoft and the other big technology companies when it can easily switch most of its functions to cheaper, better software. Could it be donations to election war chests that are the reason?

Ask the Greens, who have moved a good percentage of their IT infrastructure to free operating systems, how they do it.

But will the public revolt? Will people decide that they have had enough? Will businesses start thinking of moving to software that is good, free and does not neccessitate endless hardware upgrades to run at a decent speed?

Somehow, I doubt it. But whinging about higher prices will go on apace, of that you can be sure.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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