Hasbro is trying to shut down Scrabulous, a successful online Scrabble game -- perhaps the most successful Facebook app to date.
On the one hand, I think that Hasbro is completely within their rights: it's a clear infringement.
On the other hand, it's a departure from form (they've for a long time licensed gray-market implementations), and a failure of imagination that doesn't account for important subtleties in software engineering and social networks.
On the software engineering end, all of the interesting computer Scrabble implementations I know of were created independently and *then* brought into the fold, to both parties' mutual benefit. Hasbro is a board game company: It doesn't, and shouldn't employ brilliant independent software engineers who create a new entry in the scrabble ecosystem. The other thing to note is that Scrabulous solves some difficult problems in a way no previous product has.
Here's a brief history of the important scrabble programs I know of. The first ones let you play against a computer; this requires a powerful artificial intelligence (AI) engine and an unobtrusive interface. (The hard part is the AI; note that Scrabulous was written in Flash, a very constrained programming environment). Maven was the first Scrabble program that played at an expert level (at one time it was the best scrabble player in the world). Though developed independently, it was purchased by Hasbro (or their licensee) and adopted as the AI agent in the official Hasbro Scrabble software. I don't believe that the official software has been updated for some years, it was Windows-only, and the official scrabble site has no link to it. ACbot, another early implementation, was independently developed by James A Cherry and could play at a low-expert level.. A current offering is Quackle, a free scrabble robot developed by a student at MIT. Its AI engine is extremely strong (also one of the best players in the world) and its front end, while /quite/ rough, is useable and works on Windows/OSX/Linux. All of these programs were written outside Hasbro's aegis. They were developed by experts in computer artificial intelligence and game theory and are far superior to anything that was or could be developed in-house by a board game company.
Another approach lets you play against a person using the network in real time. One of the first was MarlDOoM -- a primitive (text only, pre-web technology) free online scrabble bulletin board. It was developed by John Chew, who at the time was simply a scrabble enthusiast but is now on the official Nat'l Scrabble Association's dictionary committee and the webmaster for their site -- I believe that implementing MarlDOoM helped bring this about. There are modern programs and websites that are officially licensed and let you compete remotely. However, their price or subscription fee exceeds the cost of the physical version, and they require that *both* parties pay for the game, which the physical version does not.
A third approach is 'scrabble by mail' -- one move every day or so, with as much or as little time commitment and deliberation as you care to devote. If there are licensed products that allow this I'm not aware of them.
In all, here's what you'd like a compelling software version of a board game to offer:
- Play from any computer, anywhere; simple to acquire, install and use.
- Reasonable price compared to the physical game
- Skill level:
- Enjoyable for an expert player
- Enjoyable for a casual player
- A casual player and a strong player may enjoy a game where their focus is on socializing and not gameplay
- Time commitment:
- Play for 10 minutes at a time -- an quick diversion.
- Play for an hour at a time -- a leisure activity
- Play without having to meet at the same time
- Social play:
- Play remotely against a friend, in real time (complete a game at one sitting)
- Play remotely in a "Chess by Mail" context: make a move every day or so, when you have time.
- 6. Competitve play:
- Compete remotely against a skill-matched stranger, in real time or move-a-day
- Track durable competitive rankings
- Tie those ratings to a reputation system to prevent gaming the rating mechanism.
None of the licensed programs or sites, as far as I know, cost less than the one-time-only, one-person-plays price of a physical Hasbro scrabble. Scrabulous is free, requires only a browser, and is available from any computer anywhere. It provides a simple experience that my computer-incompetent mom can enjoy. (As far as she knows, facebook *is* a scrabble program.)
Scrabulous is the first solution that enables me (an intermediate tournament-level player) to play remotely against any of my casual-level friends -- friends would never pay for, or seek out, or regularly visit, a scrabble-only site. My friend Jen lives in Shanghai -- no previous approach that I'm aware lets me play on my lunch break against her on her lunch break,. None let me *easily* discover when a casual friend is on: all require that you go to their sandbox when you want to play, and that all the people you'd like to compete with patronize the same sandbox. None of them let me jump in / jump out for a quick 10-minute timewaster. Since Scrabulous/Facebook is part of a compelling portal, it's natural to check in and meet friends; it understands my social network; and the play-by-turns feature lets my scale the time commitment and schedule.
No previous approach effectively prevent a cheater from manipulating his rating. However, in Facebook you are a person: you have friends, you have a name, you are part of a community. It's still feasible to be a troll or a sock-puppet or any of the other strategies to game or disrupt a community rating, but there are barriers and consequences for doing so.
If Hasbro shuts down -- rather than licenses -- Scrabulous it will be a business failure. They should be ecstatic that people are integrating scrabble into their social lives, and should see a modest halo effect in board game sales. The revenue stream from Scrabulous' share of Facebook advertising is, I believe, quite significant -- enough for Hasbro and Scrabulous to both enjoy while keeping the game free.
More importantly, Social Network research consistently highlights the importance of "Network Effects" in technology adoption (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metcalfe%27s_law). There are many, many social games on Facebook, and if Scrabulous is taken down the large body of casual users will move to another entry in this niche. After all, these games are only interesting if your friends also play. Any Hasbro implementation must not only match the quality of Scrabulous' implementation, but must build a network of friends who select it for their social gameplay arena -- and they must build that network against the ill-will that will accrue from shutting Scrabulous down.
Creating a software program (and more importantly a community) like Scrabulous has is HARD: look at all of the previous attempts that have failed to get millions of people to play online. It's hard because there are subtle and serious software engineering challenges, and it's hard because there are subtle and serious community building challenges. If Hasbro shuts down the Scrabulous guys there's no reason to think they'll be able to reproduce their success.