Free Software Business

Gianugo Rabellino, Matt Asay and others have been discussing “the meaning of open source”. This touches on two things:

  1. Free Software Business. How to make money with or from open source software. There was (still is, it’s just not active) a mailing list, “Free Software Business” where this topic was rehashed several times in a number of interesting permutations, and all of the different business models were covered. The participants were all free software fans, with varying motivations that mostly centered around a free market view of the software world, and a desire to discuss ideas about how free software could be self-sustaining economically. Despite having some of the best minds in the business (people like Bob Young, Brian Behlendorf , Michael Tiemann, Russ Nelson [the list’s host]) and a few economists, I don’t think there was ever really a ‘conclusion’. There are several models out there that work, but none of them is “perfect”. They either involve holding something back (dual licensing, for instance), or don’t really solve the problem of getting paid to produce software – service/support businesses are best when the consultants are working on paying gigs rather than creating software from scratch. It’s more than obvious that there is a great deal of value in free software, and it’s an extremely beneficial thing for companies that know how to take advantage of it. What’s not so obvious is how to transfer enough of that value to the creators of the software to keep them going.

    The point being, “free software business” is not a solved problem, so expect to see various models, as people try things out. Some of them will have problems, and won’t survive.

  2. This leaves us with the crux of Gianugo’s “rant”, that some of these companies and groups are doing open source, but not in the true, open, community-oriented approach. I think he’s right, but where I don’t agree is with this:

    Also, I’m not buying what Matt, Matthew and Ugo are saying about some sort of Darwinian selection being able to discriminate the good from the bad (assuming there is actually “good” and “bad” – I just tend to think we have different objectives): it’s hard enough to move the CIO masses beyond the “Open Source means Linux” meme, go figure explaining why they should care to consider the difference between Open Source built within the virtuous cycle of community based development and Open Source as a pure distribution model of conceptually proprietary and closed to participation code.

    I see open source as being really strong right now, and do not deem it likely that that will change – it’s survived Microsoft so far, survived the dot com bust, survived people trying to label it as a political movement, survived venture capital… Fundamentally, it just has too many things going for it. There’s too much value, too much diversity, and ruddy health. So I think that where he sees people “not getting it”, I see a competitive advantage for those who do. Things will sort themselves out with time.

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