Open Source Briefing - Report & THANKS

David Gibson david at
Sun Dec 22 01:12:07 EST 2002

On Thu, Dec 19, 2002 at 10:40:39PM +1100, Steve Jenkin wrote:
> [snip]
> After my 'What is OpenSrc' slide I got the (predictable) question -
> "How do they make money from _giving away_ their work?"  - A
> question I didnt have a good (&short) answer to.  The group tonight
> came up with a good one - Open Source is not about selling
> (thousands of) _product_ - it is about selling a service.  Your
> ability to add features, customise or install a package.

This is a very interesting question, and one that's frequently asked,
but rarely answered well:  the only good and short answer is "that's
the wrong question" [1].  Of course you can't just say that to someone
who asks, you have to correct the misunderstanding that made them ask
the question in the first place.

The trouble is that the question assumes that there's a "they" - the
software industry, who write software 'cos that's what they do - and
an "us", who use software to do whatever it is we do.

With free software, the point is that once you have it, you don't
necessarily care how it came to be, or whether the author's business
model is sustainable (or even if they had a business model, or indeed
a business):  once you've got it you can do what you want to do with
it.  And free software for doing a whole lot of useful things does
exist - this is an empirical fact.

But then, how it came to be becomes less mysterious when you stop
thinking in terms of a software industry: maybe someone just like us
wrote it because they wanted it, and since trying to sell it would be
altogether too much hassle (after all, like us, they're not in the
business of software), they decided to let similar people (that's us)
use it too.

Which, of course, isn't to say that business can't be done in all
sorts of ways related to open source software: writing or altering it
for pay, providing support for it, consulting as to whether a package
to do "X" exists and if so where.  However, business is not something
intrinsically necessary to open source software as it is to
proprietary software.

Under various circumstances, any of those may or may not be viable,
but that's really not "our" problem.

So the moral of the story is that if "how do they make money giving it
away?" is the wrong question, perhaps "how the hell do they get away
with charging so f*ing much for software?" is the right one.  Just
consider the gross margin on Windows or Office compared to practically
any other product on the face of the Earth, and the second question
seems a much more obvious one to me.

[1] Well, that or "Mu" for those who've read "G\"odel, Escher, Bach"
or enough Chinese philosophy to know what that means.

David Gibson			| For every complex problem there is a
david at	| solution which is simple, neat and
				| wrong.

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