Putting Code Together Since 1987

Open Source Isn’t for Everybody – a thought experiment

In Business, Web Development, Wordpress on October 26, 2008 at 1:53 pm

I’ve been thinking hard about Open Source and whether or not to GPL all of our forthcoming themes at Spectacu.la, following on from Brian Gardner’s decision with Revolution.

And I’ve decided that it would be a rather bad idea for us.  In fact, if you’re trying to build a strong business up from Open Source you can never make everything truly open.  So for example, although WordPress is free and GPL, WordPress.com has lots of proprietary code that will never see the light of Open Source.  And you pay for various services that use this proprietary code.  At the same time, they can cheerfully absorb, at zero cost if they wish, various GPL licensed themes and plugins.

A Toaster Analogy

The broken toaster - by Charles Dyer (CC License some restrictions)

The broken toaster - by Charles Dyer (CC License some restrictions)

A toaster company realises that although developing toasters is hard and expensive, they’re practically free to manufacture.  So why not give the toasters away and just charge for repairs, and helping people install their toasters at home, cleaning services, insurance if it burns the house down and so on.

Where does the motivation for service rather than product related income then come from?  Well – it comes from not making a simple, reliable and easy to use toaster.  In fact, because anyone can copy your toaster, you have to continuously add new features to stay ahead of the rival toaster copiers and keep people coming to you rather than your rivals for help.  You can make your toaster corporate strength – a toaster for major organisations that need to make vast amounts of toast… and they’d definitely want support and help… but you end up with small users running vastly over-powered and over-complicated toasters.

In fact, if you make perfect, simple toasters that just work for a long time, the business can’t make money.  It might even be unable to make enough money to develop new toasters unless it has a near monopoly on the toaster market.  If people can simply receive their toaster in the post, plug it in, and make bread brown, then how does the toaster maker generate some income?

A business makes money by solving people’s problems.  If your product is free then it needs to create new problems in order to give you a continuing income stream.  Open Source as a business model, rather than as a philosophy, is rather similar – even if that isn’t always the actual intention.  In fact, I believe almost all Open Source projects start with good intentions but end up shifting somewhat because ultimately, the developers, writers and other members need to actually make a living and put a roof over their heads.

The Exclusivity Problem

This is another major issue.  If anybody can use your product, regardless of whether somebody uses your add-on services or not, you have no exclusivity.  And people do want that.  If everybody could simply download a Bentley, a lot would do exactly that – even if it was far too big and unwieldy for their needs.  Some would learn that the maintenance costs would be ruinous, but many would persevere – bodging the thing along as best they can.  Before you knew it, there’d be modified Bentleys everywhere looking like they’d crashed into a Halfords store.  At the same time, the original market for Bentleys would disappear – they’d either go bespoke, or find a maker that doesn’t give away its cars to just anybody.

Closed Source Software Suffers Too

Of course, closed source generates its own problems too – and in fact, can be just like Open Source in this respect.

I used to be an independent PeopleSoft consultant.  PeopleSoft is an ERP software package, now owned by Oracle, which helped large companies to run themselves.  But it wasn’t perfect software in any way.  In fact, I believe that PeopleSoft made more money from supplying consultants to their clients than on licensing fees.  Perfecting their software – making it super flexible, easy to understand and slick to implement would have cost them a fortune to do while at the same time losing them their lucrative support business.

In fact, it’s worth noting that PeopleSoft’s original founder, Dave Duffield, toyed with the idea of an Open Source ERP system for a while, but that appears to have gone over to a hosted solution – another way in which a company can control the software.

So What’s the Benefit of Open Source?

Well in many ways, it’s wonderful stuff.  People can check out the code, add their own improvements and the project can choose whether to integrate it.  Similarly, projects can look at improvements made by other GPL projects and take that code themselves.  This is great for rapid software development and saves a lot of the real trouble of license management.

My big worry is the business motivation.  Few businesses in the software field are motivated by the concept of making perfect ‘just works’ code.  I believe that few Open Source projects, with exceptions (Ubuntu is one) have this desire.

So – should a company go open source?  Well, if they can guarantee being a market leader, then why not?  Brian Gardner, at the moment, is perhaps one of the market leaders in the WordPress themes market.  We’re not, because we’re only just starting out.  We need to feed ourselves, pay for equipment and so on.  Somehow we need a revenue stream – and one thing I’ve discovered is that if you write really good, reliable code, you don’t get much in the way of aftersales income.

While I believe in Open Source, I don’t believe it suits all businesses and all projects.   In WordPress themes, the simple ones are suited to GPL because they don’t really take much time to code up (a couple of days for many of them) but the complex stuff can involve significant amounts of artwork, development and testing.  If you do a really good job, nobody will need you after they’ve installed… and then what?  Goodwill doesn’t pay the bills.

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