Monday, March 07, 2005

If I had a million dollars

Some stories from the last little while bring to mind how easy it is to lose sight of the basic strengths that make free software work. Surprisingly so. The conventional wisdom always will tend towards the old way. To illustrate:

Recently there was a blog entry about the lack of developers for the Mozilla project. Not to overstate the problems, but contrast that with the buzz around a New York Times advertisement, and the almost 10% browser share. The metric, and the only real target for a marketing drive for any project is developers. Users are important, and the growth of Firefox has forced web developers to write for more than IE. But if there isn't any developers, how can the growth be maintained? There is a natural attrition that occurs in project; people get jobs, leave school, get married, get burned out, get bored, etc. New blood is always needed. The natural advantages of free software will attract users, as long as there is enough help available to finish and package the software appropriately. KDE does quite well with this.

And may I whisper a blasphemy: maybe all these Windows users that we all need and are striving for don't give anything back.

Another idea that stirred the hornets nest commented on the fractured nature of free software, a replay of the Unix mess of the past. Again, what is the strength of free software? You can change the code. So what do we all do to distribute free software? We put together nice binary packages. In a shrink wrap. With incomprehensible version numbers. Tell me how is this different than what we had before? How easy is it for someone to change a few things in one of the software packages they need? Quite complicated, which creates a high cost of entry into the real advantages of free software. How about a distribution designed around the idea of people modifying the source code (within reason) and still being easy to install and administer? The closest I've come to that is the now unmaintained gentoo kde-cvs ebuilds, where I could change or patch things in the local working copy from cvs. And wouldn't the easy building from source eliminate the incompatibilities that are inherent in binaries? The source is our strength, why not take advantage of it?

There are real people making real cash from implementing free software solutions, including the desktop. It will grow naturally due to its inherent advantages. I remember reading back in the '80s about how the cost of entry into the then nascent software market was around a million dollars. Most of that was marketing costs. Now someone with some skill, time and a non-abrasive personality can put out code, attract a community of developers, and a while later produce some very decent software. Some smart ones get a customer to pay them in the meantime. If we get into the million dollar game, we lose before we start. That is not our strength.


Comments:
Thanks for writting this, I've been thinking about these things too. Too many people forget that it's the developer community that drives Free Software. Having users is nice, but having developers is vital. And I don't just mean code jockeys. For the purposes of this discussion, I even consider users who submit bugs/wishes as "developers"...such activity is a "gateway drug" to further involvement.
 
Thanks for writting this, I've been thinking about these things too. Too many people forget that it's the developer community that drives Free Software. Having users is nice, but having developers is vital. And I don't just mean code jockeys. For the purposes of this discussion, I even consider users who submit bugs/wishes as "developers"...such activity is a "gateway drug" to further involvement.
 
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