Research is a beautiful thing. Software research is an ongoing effort by all educational institutions and is carried out in earnest by the big 3 internet service companies. Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google. They all have sites dedicated to the research that is being performed and freely invite the public to participate and provide feedback on these activities so that they can learn and better their efforts to provide solutions that mean more and are more beneficial to the ultimate end users.
This past week, Microsoft started publicizing their efforts around a new software product from Microsoft Research called Songsmith. It’s a program that automatically generates appropriate background music based on the vocals that you sing. From the initial demos, this is a very cool piece of software that has some great potential. It is available as a free download from the Microsoft Research site.
This is where the concept of software research labs goes slightly off the rails at Microsoft.
The software that these research efforts produce is good software at various stages of development often being at Alpha or Beta stages but always being in a non-productized state. This typically means that there is no formal support model in place and you are requested to provide feedback and bugs that you encounter to help troubleshoot the software before it makes it’s public product release. You are also expected to participate in a user forum that allows the users and developers to learn from each other. In all instances that I have ever seen where software was available from these services, the software was provided without restriction and at no cost.
Now comes Microsoft. Songsmith is a Free download and you can use it unrestricted for 6 hours. That’s it. If you want to keep using it you need to Buy it. That’s right. You are required to actually purchase a non-productized, largely unsupported, non-commercial piece of software that is still in the research labs. While I don’t have a fundamental issue with purchasing software (Talk like a Pirate day is not until September 19th so save it), I do have an issue with paying for software that is in active development that has not been formally productized.
Microsoft needs to take a page from the playbook of Yahoo and Google when it comes to research software. Until a product has a formal support process in place and has been moved to the production product phase it should be provided at no cost to the end user. Provide it with a kill switch that can be remotely activated, provide it with a time bomb that activates at a specific date, provide a limited set of keys that restrict the use of the software, have a closed beta or an invite only mechanism to manage growth. Google has managed to do this repeatedly with all of their products. Granted, Google has a major aversion to charging for their efforts but they use the software they develop and freely provide to gather various pieces of information to help further their dominance in the various technology fields that they operate in. (See link below) Yahoo does research in various areas that lie outside of the consumer space all with a goal for advancing the technology that we use on a daily basis. Microsoft goes so far as to have research teams dedicated to online services and a separate group dedicated to ‘Advancing The Frontiers of Computing’ (See links below)
Oh yeah, they have a REALLY STUPID COMMERCIAL. It completely undermines the products potential reach to parties that may benefit from the product.