Thinking out loud on Free and Open Source

I was having a barbecue at a neighbour’s over the weekend and he showed me his new iPhone 3G. In particular he really enjoyed showing the Phone Saber application he had installed. In his view, the Phone Saber – a free application – was written by people with too much time on their hands, and he was delighted to have such a gadget for free. Obviously he would have thought twice if he had needed to part with ££ for it.

Which then got me thinking about the motivations behind the Phone Saber, the because effect and Whimsley’s great post on Linux growing up and getting a job and the sadly lamented Fake Steve’s tirades on open source. And open source hardware and how much quality you should expect from free stuff.

[Aside: I know there’s a distinction between Free and Open Source. But from the point of view of someone using an application it’s the Free-ness or not that matters more than semantics about who can see the source code. In this regard my friend and his Phone Saber are the same as me and Linux/MySQL. Will I ever look into the source code of either of these? No. So for the purposes of this post it’s the free-ness that I’m most interested in, not the open-ness.]

The Because Effect: Make money because of something rather than with it. Google gives search away for free and makes its money from advertising. Google makes money because of search rather than with it.

Whimsley on Linux Growing Up: I’m a sucker for a good analogy and Whimsley compares Open Source to Making Music:

To invoke another parallel, open source software is a creative venture like music. Many people create music for all kinds of reasons. Most people create music for an audience of one when they hum in the kitchen or sing in the shower. A smaller (but still huge) number of people get together to form groups or participate in orchestras or bands. They don’t earn a living from it, but they love doing it and enjoy their performances. Some might dream of hitting the big time, others are happy being part of their community. Then a much smaller set of people take it a step further. Maybe they are paid to be in an orchestra; maybe they are in a band with a manager and bar gigs around the country. And a lucky few, of course, hit the big time. They get a record deal, find a big audience, and make some real money.

Fake Steve on Open Source:

Also worth noting: While open-source is great in many ways, remember that the single biggest tech phenomenon of the past decade has been an entirely closed and proprietary system which was launched in 2001 (two years after Red Hat had already gone public) and which last quarter produced $4.8 billion in sales. It’s called iTunes and iPod. Have you heard of it?

Open Source Hardware: In case you were thinking that open source only works for software (and so the iPod would have to be closed source), think again: Here is MFGx.com on Open Source Machine Tools.

How much quality should you expect from free? A lot, it seems, in 2008. Here are some links from earlier this year I collected when everyone seemed to be complaining about the quality of free services:

http://jeffnolan.com/wp/2008/01/17/fixed-gmail/ (Gmail)

http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/01/17/blogger-suffers-major-outage-bloggers-not-happy/ (Blogger)

http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/01/15/twitter-fails-macworld-keynote-test/ (Twitter)

So back to my friend and his Phone Saber. This is made by TheMacBox who are two students who don’t charge for their software: “We don’t believe in charging for software (we’d rather everyone was able to use it) but it does cost money to run this site, and uses a lot of our time. If you’d like to help us out, there’s a donate button in the bar at the right side of the page.”

Last time I was at PizzaOnRails I had a good chat with some developers about open source. The upshot was that developers will do open source if they are out of a job and need to demonstrate their skills to potential employers. Obviously there are also those who do it because their company sponsors them to do open source work, and there are those who have an insane drive to spend all their waking hours producing code. But I wouldn’t discount the keen amateurs (Whimsley’s bedroom musicians). I’d put TheMacBox guys into this camp – even if they would appear to be on the brink of “making it big”.

So to attempt to pull al these strands together.

The because effect is important in understanding commercial behaviour in the world of free. But the because effect is more subtle when it comes to developing free or open source software. Rather than generating revenues with or because of the code, bedroom musician developers are producing code in order to make money in the future. With the coding skills they have demonostrated in the free software. Arguably “because of” their free software but it feels like someone producing a portfolio of work in order that they might get a job in the figure is a different proposition entirely to a going concern that gives away one thing in order to make money because of it.

And back to Fake Steve who so often hit the nail right on the head: don’t discount the importance of closed-source and paid for technology. Even if not SAP-level complex beasts, the sort of thing that 37 Signals are famous for.

And while Free might be great for “me-too” applications Fake Steve has a point about new stuff. You can make plenty open sourced hardware but I doubt whether the first car could have been made on an open source basis. (Perhaps it was … I’d love to be corrected on this).

Like I said, this is just Thinking Out Loud on Free and Open Source. Trying to figure out where they fit in the grand scheme of things.

So for now I’ll leave the last word to Mashable’s recent post on “This Entitlement of Free Needs To Go Away” .

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