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Author Topic: Coding Horror Blog Essay On Free Software vs. Commercial Software Trends  (Read 4254 times)


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Jeff Atwood has a knack for writing about things that are relevant.  Even when he's not adding too much to the conversation, he just has a way of keeping things interesting.  His latest essay is on the increasing dominance of free software:

But there's something else going on here, too: the free software alternatives keep getting better every year. Consider how immature Linux development tools were in 2000 compared to what's available today: Eclipse, Subversion, MySQL, Firefox. These tools either didn't exist, or have come astounding distances in closing the gap between their commercial counterparts in eight years.

And then quoting an article by Steve Frank (read this too!):
A free program need not be glamorous or even completely bug-free. It can garner a respectable following simply by not costing anything.

I've seen many times people struggle and struggle on with a clunky freeware app just because they're not willing to pay $20 for a significantly better alternative. There's nothing wrong with that particular brand of masochism. People prioritize differently, and money is more valuable than time to a whole lot of people. It's Capitalism in action.

The people who are most tenacious about exclusively using freeware whenever possible are usually incredulous that anyone would buy a commercial product when a free alternative is available. I've heard many times, "how can you guys make a living when free command line file transfer clients are included with the OS?"

Some interesting points being made and definitely worth a read.

Screenshot - 4_10_2008 , 1_44_04 PM_thumb.png

What I think is missing from this article is the "third way" that i hope we start seeing in the future, which is "community-funded open source" software.  I think (hope) we are in a transitional stage in software, where we have a struggle between on one hand closed commercial software and on the other hand free, open source, unfunded software.

My experience is that there are some real, significant, persistant problems with the quality of a large proportion of open source projects.  These problems have to do with the lack of motivation to work on the "unfun" parts of software engineering (documentation, bugfixing, etc.).  These problems aren't just because of a lack of funding -- they stem from a different mindset in the open source community, but the lack of funding exacerbates these problems.

I do believe that we will see a move towards finding ways to community-fund open source projects, which if successful will lead to more willingness to work on the unfun aspects of coding.  The end result will be more polished, responsive open source software which is sustainable and supported in a way that most open source programs aren't currently.


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Mouser, I don't see how this would work. If people put in the money, they'll expect some assurance that a product will come from it. But as far as I can see, there's no accountability. There's nothing to prevent the developers from just losing interesting and moving on, and the investors lose their money.

In fact, I think that this is what will probably happen. Look at the huge portion of open software that has a version number that is mired at a value less than 1.0. The developers tend to have much greater expectations and even plans than they ever deliver.


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I read the Coding Horror entry when it was posted. He makes some good points.

The company I work for has a polciy: no personal software licenses on their machinery. This means that my software choices come down to:

1. Choosing from the already offerred software suite, which covers the basics such as MS office.

2. Going through a fairly inconvenient process of getting the company to buy a software title I'm interested in. This means getting my manager involved, justifying the purchase to IT, a PO process, etc. There's the justification piece: Do I really need it? Why? How much do I need it? Should we consider a site/group license in case other people will need it? To tell the truth, if it were a title that isn't carried by CDW, I doubt I'd ever get the company to buy it for me. The request would probably just fall into a process balck hole.

3. Download and install a FOSS title that's close to what I want.

Guess which option I choose 99% of the time?

I think another key thing to remember here is that software is software, and open-source and commerical titles are more alike than different. Software that focused on the fun stuff (new features) to the exclusion of the not-fun stuff (bug fixing and docs)? I've seen that plenty in the commercial software world. Developers that just walk away from a product after you've made an investment in their technology? Ditto. After all, isn't that one of the things that SPAWNED open source software? The idea of a hedge against vendors dead-ending a product you rely on?

The thing is, the open source ecosystem is a developer's party. So is the closed-source ecosystem when you come right down to it. (Microsoft has been described as a cult of developers, and I think there's some truth to it.)

Developers don't think it's fun to write docs? Well, guess what, there are plenty of tech writers who DO, but where's the welcome mat for them? "Sure you can contrbute - just go this developer's website, download this suite of developer's applications, learn this developer-only source-control technology and then figure out how to fit what you're working on into its constraints. You'll need to compile binaries form source code, but you know how to do that, right? Well, it's not that hard, just look at these 27 interlocking forum postings and you'll figure it out. So once you're all set up, feel free to contribute!"

One thing commercial dev shops (usually) have going for them is they recognize that there's more to software than writing code. They make developers work with the others in the field who are needed to support their efforts. I don't see this nearly as much in the FOSS world. I think it could happen and is more likely to happen in a community setting, but it's hardly a given there, either.
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There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don't.


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I think (hope) we are in a transitional stage in software, where we have a struggle between on one hand closed commercial software and on the other hand free, open source, unfunded software.


I'm going to have to say that I really can't see FOSS as a true alternative to mainstream commercial software. For play? Sure. For work? No.

When you really truly rely on software to get things done, and you don't have the time/skills, commercial software is almost always the best option. Or at least some kind of software that has a REAL revenue model. There is FOSS with a real revenue model, and I'm comfortable with that. I'm not comfortable with some FOSS project that has zero income and little motivation for the developers. We all have bills to pay. The money needs to come from somewhere.

Stallman is an idealist, and while I can appreciate it, and I certainly agree that what he's doing is needed, it's needed in certain places. Other places have different needs.

I'll use FOSS in some places, but pay in others. It all depends.

But mouser, I think you're being a bit idealistic and there's a bit of wishful thinking there.

Errr... No. I take that back. There is that movement, but it's not strong enough. The motivation isn't there. People don't understand enough about how the world works and how the Internet works to see the full benefits for doing the "unfun" stuff. They are there (the benefits). I firmly believe that. However, I'm not about to write a huge paper on the topic. There are several out there that touch on it already.

What I think is a good direction for software is a combined free/commercial model where companies write software and offer a cut down free version. Most people don't need the full power of MS Office. Most people don't need the full power of any of the software that they use.

I'd also like to see companies/government pick up the bill for some of it. Want a license? Are you a commercial entity? Then pay!

Why should people work for free to help others make money?

I have software that I've purchased licenses for multiple times because I want to support the developer. I want him to make money. I want him to continue development. I want him to succeed. That is in my best interest. I use his software and rely on it. (Actually, there are several titles that I regularly purchase/donate for.)

As I see it, much of the FOSS community needs to pull its head out of its ass and figure out real revenue models. Not some namby-pamby "please donate" model. People don't donate enough. They take and take and take.

There are many ways to create revenue for software, but there just aren't enough people in the industry to help the FOSS guys actually get there and do it properly. Those people are elsewhere making lots of money instead. They have no motivation to help out. These people do exist though. Finding them is the hard part.

As for funding projects... Not gonna happen. Sun funds platform projects. Novell funds platform projects. etc. etc. etc. They all fund things in their own interests. What is needed is funding for the smaller projects that provide useful products. Who wants to do that? Nobody!

An entirely new funding model is needed, or an entirely new approach to the problem is needed (more likely).

Sigh... I'm going back to my whiskey now...

(Sorry --- This is really just a very frustrating topic for me when I see so many opportunities and am virtually powerless to do anything. I wish I were independently wealthy...)
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I love freeware, and there are some amazing freeware applications out there.  However, most of the apps that I consider the "best" usually cost something.  I never understood how programmers who code freeware can spend all that time doing it without getting paid.  I know I would never do it...I don't work for free, and that is basically work, if not worse.
Even mouser, I don't know how he is able to maintain this website and his software for free (for the most part).  The only thing I can think of is that it's a showcase for his skills and he gets hired on the side for more specific, corporate-type of coding assignments.

The bottom line is that money needs to be coming from somewhere, even for the freeware programmers.  They can't spend hours programming and not have money coming to them.  Somehow, they are getting money.