How proprietary SW sucks: robotic parking garage

LWN: Weekly Edition for August 10, 2006
A couple of lessons on the hazards of proprietary software
The advantages of free software are not always immediately apparent to all computer users. Many people think that, since they have no interest in or ability for working with the source, its free availability is of no benefit to them. LWN readers, instead, tend to understand this issue well, so we try to resist harping on the point too much. Every now and then, however, the problems associated with non-free software hit such a level that one can only sit back and laugh – before writing a snide article on the subject.

Wired News has been carrying the story of a robotic parking garage in Hoboken, New Jersey. This garage is apparently an impressive gadget, for those who enjoy this sort of mechanical technology. It also depends heavily on its operating software; without that software, the system cannot operate, and any cars which happen to be inside remain there.

And that is exactly what happened. Robotic Parking Systems, the company which owns said software, decided that the time had come to raise its rates. The city disagreed, and talks between the two came to an ugly point. Once the old contract ran out and Robotic’s staff were escorted from the scene, the garage was no longer operable and hundreds of cars were left imprisoned inside. Robotic claimed that any attempt to operate the garage constituted copyright infringement, since the city no longer had a license to run the required software.

As is described in a local newspaper article, the situation was eventually resolved, with the city licensing the software for $5500 per month. There have been mumblings about how the city would have been better off running open source software. A quick check shows a relative paucity of viable free robotic garage projects at the moment, however.

A slightly older story can be found in this South Florida Business Journal article. It describes the experience of a Georgia medical practice, which used the “Dr. Notes” package for its patient records. The friendly Dr. Notes people decided to raise their support fees by a factor of four, and, when the practice declined to pay, stopped providing the monthly password required to make the system work. At that point, all of the clinic’s medical records became inaccessible.

Impounded cars may be a major annoyance, but locking doctors out of their medical records can lead to life-threatening situations. Holding the keys to those records can give an unethical company a powerful weapon, useful for extorting price increases from its customers. It is not the sort of situation any business would want to get into, much less one which is concerned with health care. Access to a company’s critical data should not depend on another company’s continued good will.

Proprietary software will always carry this kind of risk. It is subject to the whims of the company behind the license agreement – and corporate whims can be subject to sudden and catastrophic change. One still hears stories of business leaders worrying about whether they can handle the risks of moving over to free software. They would be well advised to consider thoroughly the risks of not moving as well.