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Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

Sibelius Users Forced to Face the Music

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Although the following is a little outside the mainstream of Open Enterprise, it does have a very clear moral with direct relevance to this blog's readers. It concerns the proprietary program Sibelius, which describes itself as "the world’s best-selling music notation software". It only runs on Windows and Macintosh, and comes with an oppressive DRM that places it about as far away from free software as is possible. Nonetheless, it seems widely-loved by most of its users, presumably because it does what they want it to.

Alas, deep devotion counts for nothing when you're dealing with closed-source software. In such cases, users are subject to the whims and desires of the company that owns the code. Here's what's apparently happening:

The world's leading music scoring software, Sibelius, winner of the Queen's Innovation Award and OBE's for its creators the Finn brothers, is in crisis: this will be of real concern to all Sibelius users. This site aims to do something about it.

On July 2nd Sibelius' parent company, Avid Technology announced the closure of Sibelius UK, the Finsbury Park home of the Sibelius development team. Avid claims this will make no difference either to Sibelius or to its technical support.

Sibelius is viable as a standalone company, but without sustained pressure from its users, Avid will try to run it offshore, most likely in the Ukraine. This short-term thinking is solely to ease Avid through its present cash crisis, not in any way for the benefit of Sibelius users. In fact it will effectively destroy Sibelius.

There's a longer explanation that provides more details of why this is bad news not just for users but also for the highly-respected Sibelius development team, which is based in the UK. Sibelius users have set up a "Save Sibelius" Facebook page, and created a petition asking for Avid to sell the Sibelius subsidiary back to its founders.

Because the code is closed, there's no way to fork it as would be the case had it been open. It means that the code's owners have the upper hand completely – for example, they could easily increase the price considerably, secure in the knowledge that many people would have no option but to pay.

The lesson for businesses is obvious: never depend upon closed-source mission critical code, because you lose in two ways. First, your bargaining position is extremely weak, and secondly, if the company producing the code decides to shut it down – or goes out of business – there's precious little you can do about it.

It's a huge pity that Sibelius users didn't migrate a while back to one of the free software alternatives such as MuseScore, Rosegarden or LilyPond. It's true that they don't offer every feature that Sibelius does, but they are progressing all the time, and had there been more users supporting them, they might well have achieved parity by now.

Contrast this with the situation for Microsoft Word, a program that is of critical importance for many companies. Before started to gain a significant user base, and began working towards having its ODF format recognised as an ISO standard, Word users were typically dependent on Microsoft in just the way described above.

But once Microsoft realised that a rival was nipping at its heels, and that it too needed to be certified by an international standards body or it risked being excluded from procurement lists, it was forced to open up its file format, at least in part, which has decreased users' dependence on the company somewhat.

Sadly, Sibelius users are finding all this out the hard way, and must battle for some solution that is better than the current prospects. Worryingly, that's unlikely to be an open source future, which means that they will still be beholden to the code's new owners, whoever they might be, and still highly vulnerable to more situations like the current one. A cautionary tale if ever there was one.

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