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The Cost of Free Software

June 15, 2013

Before I retired, software development was part of my work.  I also contributed to free software, usually by filing bug reports as I encountered bugs in this software.  Sometimes I submitted improvements to free software whenever I needed to modify it.  Now that I am retired, and enjoying it immensely, I do a small amount of software development for the illumos operating system project.  By participating in these development projects, I’ve learned that free software is not free!

Software development costs money, of course.  It’s a labour-intensive process.  Somebody has to pay the developers.  They also need computer hardware to use in this development, as well as a place to work.  That’s not all.  Once the software is being used, there are user support tasks to be done, along with people to carry them out.  Don’t forget marketing, not of the type used by commercial software companies, but sufficient to get the word out.  After all, if nobody has heard of the software, nobody will be using it.

There’s also a cost to the user.  There’s generally no cost to acquire the software or licence it, but there are still costs.  These will be entirely labour costs, generally the labour of a system administrator.  Installation may take a great deal of time.  That’s a cost.  Add in the cost of occasional maintenance.  There may also be costs in operating and supporting the software.  Sure, these costs also arise with commercial software products, but they may be higher with free products.  If it’s your job to install and maintain free software, be sure to tell your boss about these costs and the time you are devoting to it.  Don’t fall into the trap of saying that it’s entirely free and takes no time; your boss may think that you’re doing nothing and only pretending to be busy.

The economics for development of popular applications are pretty good.  There’s a large number of satisfied users.  The product will be well known just from the recommendations of these users.  Such an application may have only one developer.  At most there will be only a few of them.  Development costs will be low, at least in most cases.  Only a few of the users need to contribute in order to ensure that development continues.

The situation is reversed for server applications and operating systems.  These are generally major development projects with a relatively small number of users but with many developers.  As a result, the cost is much higher.  In this environment, all users of the software must contribute to its development, at least in some manner..  This is a critical realization.  Contribution is the only way to promote development.

How can individual users of server applications or operating systems contribute?  The easiest way for most users is simply to file bug reports whenever they notice bugs.  Nobody’s going to fix them if they don’t know about them.  Individuals can also fix bugs too, and submit changes for incorporation into the product.  They can even do software development, perhaps in a small way.  Maintaining web sites is another task that ordinary users can do.  It’s certainly appreciated by other users of the software.

What about organizations?  Many companies that use the software or sell products that employ the software will have people who fix bugs in the software or do development.  They should be contributing bug fixes and new software to the upstream project.  Alternatively, if your company only uses the software, you can purchase support for the software or purchase products that incorporate the free software.  Money from either of these purchases goes back into development of the software.  Companies can also set aside computer hardware for use by the development project.  They may even want to pay people to maintain web sites for the project.

For server applications and operating systems, where the number of users is relatively small, it’s essential that all of them contribute in some way.  Without their support, the project is bound to fail.

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