Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Why are we still paying for statistical software?

'What programme should I use to analyse this data?'

About ten years ago there was little choice and expensive software would have arrived in a box containing a CD-ROM!

I still have SPSS and MATLAB in my applications folder. They don't come on CDs anymore, but from a central university server. Like CDs however, these programmes are on the verge of becoming a redundant medium. 

Given the choice of free tools available today, how are commercial alternatives going to survive? IBM acquired SPSS a few years back for $1.2 billion, which I am not convinced was a particularly smart move. 


Psychologists typically want to test predictions, visualise data and produce models. That said, additional functionality can often be required quickly and unexpectedly as a research project or idea develops. An open-source community allows for a flexibility that paid alternatives do not offer (yet).





The basic SPSS package has barely changed in the last decade, which is a long time for a piece of software. Microsoft took a similar approach with Windows XP, which in turn stagnated development and led to several high-profile disasters. Did anyone ever have anything good to say about Windows ME or Windows Vista?

Extra functionality beyond the basic SPSS package will involve an additional financial outlay. Alternatively, you could just go and get a free library for R that does the same thing that gets better on a monthly rather than annual basis.  

IBM and MathWorks are responding to these new developments by simply ignoring them. The record industry took a similar approach to the MP3 file. By the time they acknowledged its existence the whole distribution of music had changed beyond recognition.

Apple took a different approach with software development. 

Developer kits previously cost hundreds if not thousands of pounds 10 or 15 years ago. Now Apple makes the iPhone development kit avalible for free and profits from the creatively that this propagates. They have successfully adapted the business model to fit a change in consumer behaviour. 

I am not suggesting that commercial statistical programmes should be given away for free, but history would suggest that no change at all is likely to result in long-term obscurity.  Given their resources, IBM should have opened up SPSS to user development years ago and taken a similar approach where people could pay a small free for well-developed home-brew modules. 

Some clever person will develop a Graphical User Interface (GUI) for R that will give it the same point and click functionality as SPSS. It will cost the end-user zero pounds. R Studio for example, already provides a very similar MATLAB interface. 

What then for SPSS?



No comments:

Post a Comment