Timmy's Telethon #519 Feb 2008
It’s not all about Timmy, Timmy worries about the little people too!
- Business model: I think I’m missing the business opportunity behind open source. Perhaps its altruism or a hobby… but that only goes so far. How are people leveraging this to pay the bills? Are services where the money is at?
Do you litter? When you put your garbage in a can, instead of dropping it on the street, is it altruism, or self-interest? After all, you’re keeping your own environment clean along with everyone else’s. What about the fellow who actually bends over and picks up someone else’s empty coffee cup to put into the can?
Open source turns software into a commons, like the environment, but because we are used to thinking of software as property, our minds find it hard to figure out why open source software aggregates effort and gets cleaner, faster, stronger. Unlike picking up litter, which everyone can do, improving open source can only be done by a small percentage of the population who can understand and work on the code, and that makes it even harder for the rest of the population to understand what is going on. WTF are these lunatics up to, moving bits of used paper into cylindrical holding devices?
The people improving open source fall into lots of categories, but here are some broad ones:
- The altruist / tinkerer. The most popular media archetype, the altruist / tinkerer probably accounts for the smallest amount of effort on mature open source technologies, but occasionally will create a new technology from scratch that is so good and compelling that it gathers other types who then keep it alive and move it into wider utility.
- The service provider. The most widely understood business model, running from the one man band (take a bow, Frank Warmerdam) to billion-dollar companies like Red Hat. They will sell you support, or custom development, directly on the software. Because they are tightly associated with the software, this is the easiest model for “vendor minded” folks to mentally grasp.
- The systems integrator. Working with the open source software, but not necessarily on the software, the system integrator is easily drawn into fixing bugs and adding new functionality on projects as the client requires. Systems integrators love open source because it allows them to meet client needs without being stuck behind a vendor’s development priorities (“we’ve got your bug report on file for the next release”, “that feature will be available in 18 months”).
- The company man. Easily the least appreciated member of the open source pantheon, because he is not paid to work on open source. He is paid to work on fish inventories. Or carbon models. Or inventory management. Or tax collection. But he has a bit of discretionary time, and he uses it to make the tools he works with work better.
Notably missing from this list is “the billionaire” and “the venture capitalist”. That is because, while there is money to be made in open source, there is not a lot of money to be made. People who try to put up fences in the open source commons find that all the rest of the players end up routing around them, and the value slowly drains from their little patch of land, leaving them only with the tried and true proprietary model to fall back on.