Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Why Open Source Software exists

What kind of idiot does a whole crapload of work and then GIVES it away for FREE? Hello? McFly?

I recently moved back to linux as my desktop operating system. It made me wonder why I got software that took thousands of man-hours to create, for free.

Ya know, "open source" is a a terrible name, because 99.9% of the time I say "open source" software, I mean FREE software. I really rarely care if I have the source code, I'm looking for a piece of software that will do the job. If I find a open-source-free piece of software that "almost" does the job, too bad, not interested. Chances are that modifying some monolithic piece of software to do something my way is anti-productive.

For example, I have a server that came with redhat 9 on it. Redhat 9 includes apache (which I need). However, Redhat 9's apache does not include encryption (i.e. SSL) support. So, I had to get the apache source and perform a compilation that has probably been done a billion times - I recompiled apache with SSL support. Lets say I wanted to change that source (hey! its open source!). Basically, I've condemned myself to either never upgrading apache (upgrades have security fixes in them among other things) or re-applying my code changes to the new versions as they come out.

I'm sure there are people unlike me that have benefitted from apache being open source, but I'm quite confident the whole idea is overrated. The idea that I had to compile apache with SSL support for Redhat 9 is ludicrous. I'm sure that EXACT act has happened millions of time. God forbid I have something slightly off in my configuration too and the happy compile crashes with some bizarre error.

We can step back a second -- why do we HAVE open source? What kind of idiot does a whole crapload of work and then GIVES it away for FREE? Hello? McFly?

First off, its someone who isn't hungry. Laugh if you will, but if you didn't have that shiny bimmer in garage (or the nintendo dad bought you) you might think a tad more entrepreneurial. You never see hammers at the store for free, why do we see free software? A hammer at one point or another took someone to design it, build it, and get it to the general public - that costs time and money. Granted, hammers have materials that cost money, so let me restate - you never see hammers at the store priced for what they cost to make. Why would someone give away software at cost (given that software is just downloadable bits, there are no materials .. i.e. cost = free)? Even mechanics charge for labor. Why the heck does open source exist? To make the world a better place? May be.

I'm pretty sure that fame is one reason. The typical open source developer doesnt own a company or even have a good idea how to start one when they start an open source project (that often changes later if the project is a success). This is probably not because they are lazy or dumb or any fault of their own, its probably because they are 18. Generally, you're not 18 and the CEO of a billion dollar company - and if you are its rare you have enough time to run that company, think capitalist on one hand, altruistic on another, and code an open source project in the mean time (not to mention high school). If you're 18, you probably believe that the same number of people listen to you as the number of people that listen to such a CEO, but think outside the box a second - it might not be true.

CEOs are used to being known. 18 year olds aren't. But in comes the internet - all of a sudden you have a free, ubiquitous, worldwide way to distribute anything you like -- including hammers. In order to actually sell your hammers, you'd have to have a company, a tax id number, and maybe even employees. Instead of all that headache, you show your hammer to your buddy Fred who says "cool hammer!". You show your hammer to your Aunt Edna who says "Neato hammer!". You start giving away your hammers for cost on the internet and you start getting emails of appreciative nail pounders. Message boards pop up around how great YOUR hammers are! Next thing you know you're mentioned on tons of blogs about having wonderous hammers! You are SUPER JOE HAMMER GUY!

You could have made money - but how? How about begging? It worked pretty well on mom.

People love these hammers, they would obviously pay for them. Some have even offered to donate for your hammers! In comes paypal.. notice paypal logos on those open source sites? "Donate to the hammer foundation". Aha! A no-cost, no-overhead, no-funny-tax-forms way to get some money. Not much - but who cares - you're famous. (what a great way to get paid and not have to deal with those pesky IRS people too!)

If you're lucky, other people come and ask to help make your hammers better. Thats right, they ASK to be your underling. They hope to share your fame. Sweet - call mom -- you got FOLLOWERS! No, no, call them "disciples".. chics love guys with disciples.

The disciples help with the hammers and you keep working on them. The emails of appreciative hammer users keep you going. If your hammers are really really great, you get lots of disciples. In your spare time, you scoff at Sears - did you know Sears SELLS hammers? What FOOL would BUY a hammer when you give them away? If you had money, you'd buy an ad saying "Hey dumb heads - I am GIVING hammers away! Why are you going to Sears!?". But you don't have money. Instead, you keep seeing Sears ads fooling the masses into buying hammers!

Could there be some enterprise level sales tier that buys tens of thousands of hammers from Sears each day that you don't even have a clue exists? Nah.

Dummies.. Sears doesn't get it. Hammers were meant to be FREE! That company is doomed.

Sometimes, the disciples get loud. Maybe because they are just loud folks, or maybe because there gets to be a lot of them. You better fight to keep control you know - these are YOUR hammers. People have egos, its a fact of life. Sometimes those disciples start disagreeing with your vision.

They think hammers should be blue, you think thats silly. Sometimes those disciples leave you and go start making their own hammers. They post nasty things about you and your hammers and tell you to go to hell. (see the XFree project - this thread captures some of the spirit). You retract your team - you must protect my precious!

If you're at this point, you're obviously making something people want. And if there is something that has enough demand to it, you'll get competition. That's competition besides the traitor disciples (infidels!).

Competition you say? You mean you have to compete to give away something? What kind of silly world do we live in where people compete to give away stuff (besides drugs and web browsers of course). You'd better get lawyers. Those scumbags who are trying to steal your market of people that don't pay you are up to something funny! What if they STEAL (click here) the free, open-source code you gave away for free and give it away free themselves!? Damn them!

The Judas disciples can smoke a turd in hammer hell for all you care. You also realize that this hammer project is taking a lot of time. Users are calling for support and features. Sure would be nice if you could pull back on your shifts at Mickey D's to devote more time to the hammers. Maybe you can make more money off the hammers? They sure are popular!

Idea! First off, start traveling the country giving speeches about your hammers. You're famous you know. People will go to conferences to see you speak on the nuances of handle design. Second, sell support. You already gave away the farm by giving free hammers, can't go back on that now. We'll sell support - thats it! Microsoft does it - why cant you!? What else.. hmm.. T-shirts? How about selling the documentation? And consulting! You can get consulting gigs showing people how to use your hammers.

You've helped the economy you know. You took something that cost companies millions before and made it far cheaper (or free). The CEO's thank you. You might have hurt a few little mom-n-pop hammer makers, but thats the breaks. Evil cretins -- CHARGING for hammers indeed.

Eventually though, you might get a better offer. Be it from a wife, a new child, or a great new job. There won't be any more time to work on hammers. And since hammers only paid so much, you'll probably have to move on. Others may take over your hammers, they may not. Big companies that relied heavily on your hammers might be in trouble now, they may have to take over your hammers themselves because of their dependence.

It was a good run, you'll always be known as Super Joe Hammer.

If from all this you somehow think I hate open-source, man are you wrong. I love open source! What part of free software is there not to love? Many say that its more robust than commercial software. Plenty of open source is quite bug-free that I've seen (apache, linux, etc.). Then again, some seems to get abandon in pre-finished stages. Bottom line (as always) - I use what works.

Maybe open source does work. I would love it though if there was a clear distinction in the naming protocol. Currently, there are such things as free open-source, for-pay open-source, free closed-source, and pay closed-source. If I am messing around with one my servers to setup a free blog (like this one) I'm probably inclined to use something free - open-sourcedness being irrelevant. Thanks hammer guy.

So why DID joe hammer give away hammers? He had a product that could obviously be sold yet he chose to give it away. The answer is that either he didnt know how to sell it - or he is a wonderful altruist. It would seem that if someone was a true altruist, they may help starving people in the world somewhere before worrying about those poor corporations who can barely afford the software they need.

By the way, I just checked, Sears is still doing just fine.

1 comment:

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