“Free software is not a good way to make money.”
No, Im not quoting an analyst with an ax to grind against free software. Nor am I citing a reporter who doesnt understand the first thing about open-source business models. Im reporting what a major open-source developer told me recently.
Because of the very personal nature of his problems, Im not going to identify him, but suffice it to say that his software is one of the major open-source “success” stories.
He goes on, “I have spent 20 years first studying how to, and then making a [major open-source project], and then rewriting it from scratch. I give [it] away for free, and the money is not so important really. My [19xx vehicle] is still a really nice car. But then I go for a divorce, and find that the courts treat me like [crap] because I dont have money.”
“So, when I go to conferences, and people say odd things like “It is an honor to meet you,” doing free software is great, but in the courts, if you dont have money, you are [crap].”
Now, right about now you may be thinking that life just handed this guy a really bad hand and it could have happened to anyone whether they worked on free software or for Microsoft.
Funny you should think of Microsoft, because another major open-source developer, Daniel Robbins, Gentoo Linuxs founder and its former chief architect, recently got a job there.
Gentoo Linux may not be a Red Hat or a Novell/SuSE, but it is an important Linux distribution.
Our own eWEEK Labs said in February that while we “would hesitate to recommend Gentoo for broad production use … based on our research and testing of Gentoo, its a distribution thats certainly worth keeping an eye on.”
So why did Robbins join “The Evil Empire”? Well, it seems he needed a good job. Who doesnt?
Or, consider Lycoris, which was acquired a few weeks ago by Mandriva.
Lycoris is a well-thought-of desktop Linux distribution.
The company had also recently tried to bring Linux to the tablet PC market.
You might think that Lycoris had been doing well. Think again.
An Uphill Battle
By the time Mandriva bought Lycoris, its founder, Joseph Cheek, confessed, “I am the sole remaining Lycoris employee.”
Hes not the only small Linux vendor facing an uphill battle.
Founder, CEO and chief CD-burner Warren Woodford tells me that even though hes made progress with resellers, getting local business support has proven to be almost impossible, so Mepis remains a one-person operation.
Even the very best of the best have had employment trouble. The Open Source Development Lab, the self-proclaimed “center of gravity for Linux,” laid off a sixth of its employees, including some programmers, in May.
Whats going on here? Is something wrong with free software?
No, theres nothing broken about free software. I remain certain that the open-source approach is the best way to build quality software.
But, open-source is a software development model, or if you prefer, an intellectual freedom approach. It is not a business model.
Now, you can build successful business models around open source.
IBM has reinvented itself as a service company largely because of its Linux and J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) support.
Novell is pulling itself out of its NetWare grave with SuSE Linux sales and support.
And Red Hat keeps seeing year-over-year income increases of over 50 percent since it abandoned its direct sales model for a subscription-based one.
So one of the keys is you shouldnt confuse technical expertise with business savvy. This is the same pit that many of the dot-coms fell into in the great dot-com crash.
The companies that are built on open source should do a better job of making sure some of their income gets into the hands of the open-source programmers that make it all happen. Without them, there would be no marketable Apache, Linux or Samba.
Yes, many developers are doing it for the love of it, but that and $2 will buy you a cup of coffee. Serious open-source programmers need serious financial support.
Another reason is that far, far too many people treat free software as free as in beer as well as in speech.
Yes, you can pay nothing for most open-source software, but if you want to see the next and better version of it, youd better start paying something for it.
Corporate customers also need to do a better job of paying for open-source software.
Yes, for example, you can run JBoss outstanding J2EE server JEMS (JBoss Enterprise Middleware System) for nothing.
Its my understanding that only one in 20 JBoss users actually pay for it. That percentage must increase for JBoss, or any other open-source business, to keep building great software.
If people dont start supporting open-source software with more than just lip service… well, there will be a lot more leading open-source programmers heading to proprietary companies.
Its not that they dont believe in free software. They do. They also believe in putting a roof over their head. Who can blame them?
eWEEK.com Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at email@example.com.