The Silent Majority Pays for Open Source

(Back in 2003 I ran a moderately popular tech blog on the Radio UserLand platform. This is an archived version of a post from that blog. You can view an index of all the archived posts.)

Wednesday, 30 July 2003

When you think of a writer, you probably imagine a book author, a journalist, an essayist, or even a script writer of some sort, but it's generally someone who makes a living selling their words. But the majority of text isn't produced for direct or even indirect sale: it's used to remind your spouse to pick up a gallon of milk at the store, or to thank Aunt Rita for that lovely sweater, or to point your friend to that really funny website you saw this morning. Even the majority of text someone gets paid to write isn't written for sale: it's in business correspondence, or restaurant menus, or on mortgage applications, or bus schedules, or in instruction manuals, or on the back of cereal boxes. Practically everywhere you look you can find the written word. Someone was paid to write much of it, and yet hardly ever are you buying the words themselves.

Most of the time text isn't the end product, it's a tool for communication. Lots of folks are paid to write something, very few of them view the text itself as the product. It's a means to an end.

Yesterday Alan Williamson asked "Who pays for open source?" and answered his own question with "The great belief, as sung by pretty much all companies involved in open source, is 'we charge for support'."

Andy Oliver suggests this is but one open source business model, but goes on to define four "forms" that all pretty much come down to "we charge for support".

I think Steven Berkowitz, in a comment to Alan's post, gets much closer to the truth: "Open source projects that somehow make money for someone, be it through support, consulting, etc., are the exceptions." I'll take that comment one step further: Modulo outsourcing, software projects that directly make money for someone, be it through sales, support, etc., are the exceptions.

I'm going to make an assumption here, but I think it's an assumption I can safely make. The majority of software developers aren't selling software, or even software support and services.

Living as I do, in Chicago, where I'm told both the per capita and absolute number of software developers is higher than the Silicon Valley, I think this observation is a bit more obvious. I know a lot of software developers, but practically none of them build software for direct sale to consumers or businesses. When a "software development" firm is hired, it's often for custom (or at least customized) development. Even when we sell shrink-wrapped software, as my company does, it's not the software that customers are really buying.

For most companies and for most developers, software isn't a business, it's a tool for getting the real work done.

In this scenario, it's easy to see why a company might use open source software: just find me the best tool for the job. It's also easy to see why a company might allow its IT staff (internal or outsourced) to contribute to open source development. Critical as it might be, and as disastrous as it can be when it fails, few companies rely upon software for their competitive advantage. I don't care if my competitors use the same web or database server that I do, or for that matter the same XML parser, caching engine, unit testing framework, or database connection pool that I do. Indeed there is some advantage to me if the non-proprietary parts of my infrastructure become commodities.

While the public face of open source software might be the folks that are trying to build a business around it, I suspect that's because, well, they're selling something. Who pays for open source development? My guess is that the answer is the same as it is for most software development: the folks who are trying to get something else done.


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