Why Giving Away SAS Might be a Good Idea

Yesterday, Matt Keranen  (a.k.a. @HybridDBA) made the comment about SAS giving free software to universities as response to R <<  “Would be nice if they did the same for developers”

The more I thought about that, the more convinced I became that he is right. There are a few reasons. First, let’s look at the two reasons that SAS has for giving free access to universities:

1. What you learn in college is probably what you are going to use when you graduate, if you have any choice. At large institutions — companies, universities — the decision to continue paying for a site license is related to how many people use it. If a person comes into an organization and is told they can use SAS, Stata, SPSS or R and they know SAS, that’s what they are going to choose. When the decision to renew the license comes up, the cost in the budget will be balanced against the fact that there are, 1,478 users who would be inconvenienced if they were forced to switch packages, not to mention the cost of all of that code being rewritten, documentation, etc.

2. SAS really isn’t losing sales by giving it away free. The version SAS distributes free is limited in the number of observations, and run on the SAS servers, which are slower than running on your desktop. Someone doing heavy-duty analyses at the university is going to need the full edition and pay for it. Students, who are broke, usually working for minimum wage, if they have a job at all, and just doing small scale studies for class assignments, might have turned to R if they had to shell out a lot of money. University researchers, who are paid more than minimum wage and have a lot of demands on their time are going to still find it preferable to use SAS because their time is much more valuable in terms of lost income and scarcity.

So …. I’m sure the folks at SAS are nice people and care about education, but it doesn’t hurt them that this generosity is likely to help protect them from encroachment of R in the market.

Why, then, should SAS give away its product to developers, who, if they are any good, are making way more than minimum wage?

Free beer, free speech and free puppies

Plenty of people say that free software should be thought of not as free beer but as free speech, as a moral principle.

Mochi the dog

Personally, I go more with the theory that R, Linux, Ruby and other open source software is more like a free puppy.

A puppy is awesome if you have the time.

Also, the number of free puppies you are likely to accept is a lot lower than the number of free beers. BUT that puppy you do accept, you’ll come to love. You’ll spend enormous gobs of time with your puppy and get to know it.

Here’s another free puppy thing … having a dog is a social activity. You’ll meet other people who have puppies. As more people learn R (or Linux or Ruby or …) there become more and more resources out there. Look at Linux – there is the Ubuntu forums where you can find just everything Ubuntu and a bunch of other sites for every other flavor of Linux. Even a Puppy Linux forum. There are a lot of really good books available.  I’d say the documentation and support available for Linux is better than Microsoft’s, from an individual perspective. Of course, a lot of organizations have their in-house Windows support.

Is Linux a threat to any commercial manufacturer? It’s open to debate. There is a good article on arstechnica that said Linux was 1% of users worldwide but over 6% of their readers. There’s a lot of debate on how big the penetration of Linux really is on desktops, which doesn’t interest me that much personally, but if you’re really into it, this Computerworld blog discusses a bunch of studies. On the other hand, there is no question that Linux is a major player in the server market and at least PC World thinks they are on the rise. They aren’t the only ones, but others claim Linux server usage is on the decline.

None of that is my point, actually. I think if you wait until Linux or Google or Microsoft or SPSS or whatever has 92% of the market share you have already screwed up big time. What corporate weenies ought to be getting paid for is to prevent competition from taking root. So, just like with the free educational offering for universities, here are two reasons I think it is in the selfish, vested interest of SAS to give it away free to developers.

1. It supports the people who are giving SAS  a competitive advantage.

What is the biggest benefit of SAS over R ? Probably ease of use. SAS has an easier learning curve than R, especially if you use SAS Enterprise Guide.  SAS also has unbelievably great technical support that you can call. They also have sascommunity.org and SAS-L , both completely volunteer activities, the users groups – local, regional and national – which SAS supports somewhat but are huge volunteer efforts. There is also the SAS publishing arm which cranks out good books that the authors probably made $3 an hour for if you paid them for their time.

Who are the people who are on SAS-L all the time, writing conference papers, volunteering in user groups, writing books? I’ll bet that a disproportionate number of them are developers.  Like giving SAS free to students because they are then “hooked in” to the SAS community, there is an incentive for providing free software to those who are already spending an inordinate amount of time promoting it – not just because they are providing that user base, documentation and community that open source software communities have, at their best. R is growing rapidly in the body of resources available on-line, in print and through user groups. If you are a new person coming into programming, statistics, analytics or whatever the buzzword is we’re calling ourselves today, you have plenty of cool things that are free to which you can devote your time  –  R, Ruby, Linux –  and a bunch more. Of course, of all of those, R has the most direct head to head competition with SAS. The developers are people who don’t mind getting into the nuts and bolts and they are the least likely to be put off by the less user-friendliness of R. Giving it away free is one way to retain those people in your camp.

Equally important in retaining a market advantage for SAS is having a mountain of legacy applications out there. Yes, I know that in a perfect world the better product wins, but on Planet Earth here there is such a thing as fixed costs. I even know a person who is a COBOL programmer, for God’s sake, and it is not because COBOL is superior to C++ or Objective C or Ruby or Perl – or, well, anything. It reminds me of an unimpressive co-worker I once had who, when I asked an extremely honest manager about him replied,

“Well, uh, he’s a nice man and he’s here and uh, he has a job and at one point he probably did good work and he’s been here a long time and it would be too much time and money to get rid of him so, uh, he has a job.”

Having applications that need to run every day, week, month or even year for your annual reports makes it a whole lot less likely that your organization will decide to get rid of a product supporting that application. Personally, when I put in a bid on a contract I usually recommend a client use SAS because it has a lot to recommend it, not the least of which it is fairly intuitive so it is easier for their own personnel to understand and maintain. There’s also the fact that I have used it forever and a day, so I can write programs relatively quickly and my time is billed by the hour. Sometimes the client wants SPSS, Stata or even Excel. Far be it from me to question the people paying the bills, unless they are completely wrong. (“With all due respect, Excel would be a bad choice for structural equation models and doesn’t have a procedure for multiple imputation so, yeah, we won’t be using that.”)  If they leave it up to me, though, they get SAS.

2. SAS really isn’t losing sales giving it away for free. Let’s be honest here. I’m not going to buy a SAS license. I am always working for some company or university that has it installed and I get it under their site license as a faculty member, or consultant or employee (sometimes clients want to pay me as a regular employee – as long as the checks are for the same amount and don’t bounce, it’s all the same to me). Apple had a pretty innovative way of giving away its developer tools for free – the cost was $500 but if you bought a new computer the package included a $500 voucher for a new computer.  We bought a new computer every year since we got the $500 off, also we like shiny things. SAS is full of smart people. They could probably come up with some innovative way to see that a free license really doesn’t cost them anything.

In short – well, it’s way too late for that now – so, in summary, giving away SAS to developers might win some good will, increase entrenchment and not cost any real money.  Kind of like the whole academic thing.

P.S. The puppy, since I always get asked about her, is about six months old in that picture. She now weighs more than me. She is a Dogo Argentino.

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  1. SAS is the only language I have to pay for. I have been a big advocate of releasing the developer tools to the community for a long time. Thanks for articulating it.

    Toss Integration Technologies into the free mix as well. It’s cost is one of the biggest impediments to wider SAS deployments.

  2. Ann, I mentioned this in Twitter because it is what we do at Voxeo. It works well on both sides of the equation – developers get to learn and work with new technology without incurring monetary expense until they decide to go into production, and as a company we get the opportunity to attract lots of new potential customers. We support to our developers before they go live, so the approach benefits everyone.

    On personal projects, I prefer to use vendors with this approach. It gives me the opportunity to fully evaluate a product stack, and become knowledgable with only an investment of time. It is what makes the open source model appealing to many, but also to those who want the support of a vendor.

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