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Burgers As A Service

There is this burger shop near my home that makes the most amazing burgers, fries and shakes. Bar none. The burgers, of which there is quite the variety, each have their own "secret sauce" that gives each burger its own unique flavor. The fries also have various dipping sauces you can order, each of which are "secret sauces". Lastly, the shakes, which seems to have a never ending array of flavors, each have their own "secret recipe" to the flavor. Because of these trade secrets, the burgers, fries and shakes are outstanding!

It's more than just taste too. Portions are epic. They have the "Big Ben" burger, which cut in half would produce two Big Macs from McDonald's. Then there's the "Double Ben", with two patties and the "Triple Ben" with three patties. Add on the amount of fries, and the size of the shake, and you could easily feed a family of four with one order of the Triple Ben.

Lastly, the service is amazing. Every time I've visited, I've gotten outstanding service from the employees, and the turn around time on preparing my meal is fast. Maybe not as fast as a "fast food" joint, but certainly not as long as your standard dine-in restaurant either. As a result, I recommend Burger Bar in Roy, Utah to anyone and everyone. If you're a burger, fries and milkshake lover like I am, you'll love this burger stand.

However, despite the amazing food, epic portions and fantastic service, Burger Bar operates on trade secrets. The recipes for their burger sauces, dipping sauces and shakes are all proprietary. Further, they aren't free. I pay ~10-12 dollars for lunch whenever I want to pay them a visit. If I bring a party of 6 or 8, I don't get a bulk discount either. So, aside from the food and the service, everything about the experience is proprietary and vendor-controlled.

I'm okay with that. So why is it that some people aren't? Well, not with burgers, but with SaaS, or "software as a service". Of course, I'm referring to Facebook, Google+, Gmail, Bit.ly, and other software vendors that provide an online service to their userbase.

It seems to be the latest "fad" (call it what you will) to oppose proprietary SaaS solutions, or sites with proprietary JavaScript licenses. Companies, such as Facebook, operate on trade secrets. Their server-side code certainly isn't open to the public, and their JavaScript is obfuscated as much as possible to prevent prying eyes from making any sense out of it (as well as minimize bandwidth). Now, I no longer have a Facebook account, but I left Facebook for other reasons. Mostly, if Facebook was a burger joint, I'm confident that they are trying to poison me, without me catching on. But that's beside the point. Facebook offers a service, entirely proprietary, much the same way Burger Bar offers a service, entirely proprietary.

Yet, it's okay to eat the burger, but not okay to use Facebook. It's okay to ignore the trade secrets of a restaurant, but not okay to ignore the trade secrets of a software vendor. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not advocating, endorsing or condoning trade secrets, such as copyrights, patents, trademarks, etc., where the intent is to defend your intellectual property at all costs. All I'm saying is, when it comes to software, I view SaaS a bit differently than installed software.

Continuing the food analogy, when I prepare food in my home, I want to know what's in it. The FDA in the United States feels the same, and as a result, ingredient lists are required to be printed on every packaged food source. So, when making my own burger, I have the right to know exactly how to prepare it, down to making my own "secret sauce". I have the source code to my burger, so to speak, and I can make all sorts of fantastic burgers with that "source". Yet, when I visit a restaurant, I don't need to know the "source code", so long as I feel confident the restaurant isn't trying to poison me or make me sick.

I treat my computer much the same way. My laptop is my home, where I can make my own recipes to create my own software. I have full control over my data, and by having access to the source, make sure the software is respecting my data too (among other things). Google is my restaurant, where I can order software, perhaps pay a premium, and enjoy a good experience, with someone else's trade secrets. I decide what data to give them, and what not to. I still have full control over my data. So, although I don't have access to the source, I don't have to give them my Social Security Number either. On my laptop, having access to the source code is key, and the foundation for a lot of my Free Software principles. On a web site, regardless of the site, I'm not interested in the source code so much, as I am having a positive experience that allows me to interact in a safe and productive manner.

I share this post, because I just finished reading http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2011/11/24/google-plus.html. Bradley Kuhn argues that you won't find him on these services, such as Twitter or Facebook, because of the trade secrets. I applaud him for sticking to his principles, and not compromising. However, does he eat at burger joints where trade secrets have been critical to their success? I'm curious where the line is drawn. Why is it okay to eat and physically digest trade secrets, but it's not okay to execute them in your browser? As a result, I believe Bradley may be distancing himself from those that love him, and just want to interact with him online. In fact, I would say he's distancing himself from the very people he wants to advocate to. How can more people use Free Software, if you are only hanging out with the people who already do, and you are not hanging out with the people who don't?

Just my thoughts. I'm not interested in trolling, so don't take this article as such. Only as discussing an angle to SaaS that I don't think many have thought about. If you're interested in arguing in the comments, please be civil. Thanks.

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Tim using Firefox 8.0.1 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | November 28, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Good analogy Aaron. I've often had a hard time explaining to people why I'm OK working for a SaaS company while also being an advocate for FOSS. I'll now be able to point them at your blog. :)

  2. Nicolai Hähnle using Debian IceWeasel 7.0.1 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | November 28, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    The analogy is a good one initially. And I agree that there is nothing immoral about trade secrets in software as a service from the outset.

    I think the problem is not so much one of openness of the software in this case, but openness of the system.

    The burger join does not lock in its visitors. Facebook *does* lock in its visitors, by means of network effects.

    Imagine for a moment a world in which all software behind Facebook was in fact open source or free software, but the system itself was run by a cabal of committers, and you personally (but not necessarily the majority of the population) have a disagreement with that cabal. You would like to see certain modifications done to the code base, and the cabal disagrees.

    The fact that the source code behind the system is open/free does not help you very much. Sure, you could start your own fork, but good luck convincing everybody you know to switch over to it.

    When you look at it from that perspective, it becomes obvious that the *real* problem isn't so much that the code behind Facebook is closed. The *real* problem is that for you to have a connection with someone, you must either both use Facebook or both *not* use Facebook. There is no possibility to mix and match.

  3. Bryan Quigley using Firefox 10.0a2 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | November 28, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    The burger joint gives me the freedom (or doesn't even think of restricting it) to:
    use the burger for any purpose I want
    study the burger, and add or change things how I want them

    It does lose the ability to copy the burger, and to improve it and share it. The analogy also breaks done somewhat....

    I am making a 1 time transaction. I don't have to eat their ever again. They win me back on just their food and service. And I do now how the food affected me (somewhat), if it made me sick, I won't be going back.

    They are also required to give me nutrition information. They are regulated, they have to meet certain standards that we as a society have created for restaurants. They undergo inspections to make sure everything is safe.

    We don't have many standards for SaaS yet. That makes the discussion all the more important.

  4. Roger using Google Chrome 15.0.874.121 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | November 28, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    The problem is switching costs. If the burger joint starts doing something that is not in your interests (eg posting pictures and video of every customer) then you can drive a block further and go somewhere else to eat. The costs for you to switch are zero or perhaps less than zero.

    Switching away from a proprietary SaaS provider is far more expensive and virtually impossible. Look at what it would take to move your life from Google to Facebook or vice versa. What it also shows is that standards matter. You can use virtually any car and US currency with human body 1.0 to eat anywhere in town. Facebook, Google, Amazon etc do not share a common open standard interface which makes switching even more expensive since you also have to change how you talk to each one. If you had to change your car, money and mouth to use a different eating place you'd also be a lot more concerned about how they work.

  5. Aaron Toponce using Debian IceWeasel 8.0 on GNU/Linux 64 bits | November 29, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    @Nicolai Hähnle- I'm not understanding how a burger shop does or does not lock in its visitors, nor with Facebook. I left Facebook rather easily. I was tired of the service. I can just as easily switch burger shops too. Unless you're referring to federation, which is beyond the scope of this post.

    @Bryan Quigley- Yes, you can study the burger all you want, but the "secret sauce" in the burger, dipping sauce, and milkshakes will keep you at bay, unless you're exceptionally good at reverse engineering ingredients.

    @Roger- Switching from a proprietary SaaS provider isn't expensive at all. It was actually quite trivial for me to get my contacts out of Facebook, and into Google, because when adding them on my phone, I linked them to a Google Contact. After leaving Facebook, all of their contact information was already in the cloud. For many SaaS providers, there are a number of tools for migrating data from one provider to the other. Leaving Google, despite their many proprietary SaaS products, is quite easy with their data liberation goals.

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