Combining free and proprietary software

I was reading Martin Fowler’s unscientific agglomeration of opinion on version control tools yesterday when I came up with an idea about finding a compromise between open and closed source tools. Thinking about it, I realize that I’ve come close to getting this idea a number of times before, but never really quite reached the tipping point. Anyways, if you’re in a hurry, the basic idea is this: make developer tools (compilers, IDEs, version control tools etc.) completely free and open source. Also make underlying architecture free and open source as well (like the Linux kernel or Ruby on Rails). But you also want to make some money from software, right? To do that, anything that is not developer focused stays closed source and is charged for.

What led me to flesh out this idea was Martin Fowler’s observation that the three most popular version control systems: Subversion, Git and Mercurial are all completely open source. With just a little bit of thought, I realized that there’s a company that does exactly what I propose: Apple. Apple’s dev tools like XCode and the Objective-C compilers and libraries are open source are free for everyone to download and use. The core of OS X is the open source Darwin kernel. But layered on top of this is a closed and really high quality system of interfaces and applications that make for a very appealing user experience.

First let me say that what I’m about to say isn’t a commentary on the pay-for-support model that Red Hat and Canonical use. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate model that has it’s advantages for consumers, companies and open source hackers. But I want to propose an alternative that focuses on making money from selling the software itself.

Opening Doors

Why does this make sense? Leaving aside any moral imperatives, one of the biggest reasons for open source is that you can tinker and fix things that are broken. If you see something that is not right, you can easily pop open the hood and dig around in the internals. Now, the only way that you’ll know if something is broken is if you either use it yourself or have someone tell you that it’s broken. However, in my experience it’s much easier to fix something when you see it broken for yourself. It also gives you a better idea of what the fix should be like. It’s also more likely that you’ll change a program for the better if you’re using it day in and day out. Eating your own dog food has its advantages. If you’re a programmer, you’re most likely to find bugs and missing features in tools that you use every day. So it makes sense for you as a developer to use open source tools so that there’s an easy way for you to fix or change things that in turn will help your own developer experience.

If you’re a corporation (or organization) like Apple or Microsoft then it makes sense to open source your developer tools as well. For a corporation, the benefit to open sourcing a product is that you get feedback both in terms of ideas, comments and bug reports and also in terms of real working code. What you end up with is a positive feedback loop: you make tools and release them to developers for free who then help you make even better tools. I love the lesson that 37signals has taught the world in terms of tools and basic infrastructure: Ruby on Rails is part of their basic infrastructure, but they’ve decided to open source. As DHH claims, it’s hard to make money off of basic infrastructure (unless maybe if you’re Microsoft with a huge already installed base). Better to release it into the world and benefit from the improvements that other people make to it.

Making Money

So that’s all nice and dandy for developers, but what about the poor corporation that wants to make a decent buck? The basic idea is that the number of people who aren’t developers far outweighs the number of people who are. Also the number of people who just want something that works far outweighs the number of people who want something that they can tinker with ad infinitum. Even most of us hacker types occasionally break down and just want something that we can shut off our brains and use (for me it’s Excel in my engineering labs and Photoshop for image manipulation). People will pay for convenience, quality and polish. That should be the motivating factor behind businesses who want to sell software.

To make money from selling software you first need to hire good developers and give them good tools that they customize to their needs. Fortunately, you already have great free dev tools. Now pay these people well and give them a concrete goal so that they put real polish into the products, especially in the areas that open source hackers might tend to neglect. Since you’re going to be charging money, you can afford to put some money into hiring professional designers and UI experts and make sure that your app really looks good as well as works good (something that is still sorely lacking in a lot of open source software). Of course you need other people on team too: at least a fair number of testers who are the same people who will be using your for-pay product day in, day out. You end up with a product that has been crafted by motivated developers using great tools with feedback from your target user base. Admittedly you can still end up with a crappy product that no one wants to pay for, but that doesn’t mean the idea itself doesn’t work.

Though I have no real experience making products like that, the cases in front of us are pretty clear to see. Apple and Adobe both make lots of money selling high quality consumer software and I personally consider Microsoft Office to still be a better user experience that OpenOffice.org (especially with the ribbon interface).

One of the questions I haven’t fully resolved is whether your for-pay app should be open sourced. I am tempted to say no because I can’t think of a business model where you can open source your product (code and design elements) and still expect people to pay a decent price for it. If someone with more experience than me can come up with a working model, do let me know. However, one compromise that might be fair is to open up your app a few years later once your company has a newer product. Under this model, Apple would open source all their code prior to OS X. I’m less familiar with Adobe, but I think prior to the Creative Studio editions would be a good time point. Microsoft might consider releasing the pre-NT Windows code and maybe Office prior to 2000 or 2003. That way, your business still makes money today while making a community contribution in the future. It also helps users who can get their hands on a copy of a program if they need to open a file from 10 years ago that the current version no longer supports. It frees up the company to go ahead while worrying a little less about backward compatibility. It also keeps companies on their toes because they know that any market advantage they have will be effectively erased in a few years.

The Plan Isn’t Perfect

No plan survives contact with the enemy

– General Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke

And this plan will definitely have to be modified if and when a company adopts it. One immediate problem I can see is that inevitably there will be calls to open source all the company’s product. I don’t have a suitable response to that apart from saying that would probably cause the business plan to collapse. Also if your product’s core algorithms don’t vary much from one generation to the next, open sourcing older versions might be equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot (though if you’re expecting a handful of algorithms to bankroll your company till the heat death of the Universe, you’re probably doing it wrong).

Again, I don’t have any real world business experience (though I would like to, someday). I also don’t know any company that has a policy like this at its core. If you’re interested in starting a company like this (or know of one already), do drop me a line. I’d really like to play a part in making a world where people can get paid for writing their code and then releasing it for other people to use and improve. A business that makes money but still open sources its code (even if its a few years late) would be a great step in that direction.

Mono, Clojure and the price of Free

If you’re at all interested in Open Source or Linux you’ve probably heard about the debate surrounding the inclusion of Mono and Mono-based apps in the default Ubuntu distribution.  Here is the original post that seemed to trigger it all. Here is the reply that was posted by Jo Shields, a member of the Debian Mono group. Richard Stallman also weighed in on the matter, in favor of removing Mono. Now I think having ideals and standing up for them is great and that people should always stand up for what they believe in. However, it’s one thing to stand up for your ideals and do what you have to, but it’s quite another to use your ideals as an excuse for making people use something that is of lower quality and that they don’t want to.

I think that people who advocate open source often forget that a lot of people (including a lot of people working with computer technology) care less about the licensing of their software and more about whether or not it works well. The reason open source succeeded isn’t so much due to a religious zeal to use only Free products but rather due to the fact that it let people open up the innards of their software and make changes so that things worked better. The reason I use Linux over Windows is that I can start up in 30 seconds as opposed to 5 minutes and have things organized just the way I like. And I like OS X better for managing my media and doing graphic related stuff.

The second bone I have to pick regards all the talk of “alternatives”. The original post says “There are alternatives to every Mono application that for the most part are better” and quite conveniently fails to mention any of them. Stallman says that the ‘probem’ is with applications like Tomboy which depend on Mono and also fails to mention any alternatives that would not depend on Mono. It’s this sort of condescending attitude towards developers who are doing real work that really irritates me. Stallman is a very inspiring figure who has done a lot of work for open source, but let’s not forget that a lot of ‘pure’ free software GNU projects have been stalling for years while alternatives leap ahead. Free software owes its position today in no small part to the Linux kernel, while the GNU’s own Hurd kernel which started development before Linux is still unusable for most intents and purposes. The Guile scripting language which was supposed to become standard across all GNU tools is also mostly a pipe dream. GNU’s Flash replacement is mostly inadequate. GNU Emacs is a wonderful piece of technology, but it’s losing out to newer IDEs. I personally believe these IDEs are inferior to Emacs in many ways, but are much more in-tune with modern developer needs while Emacs is in many ways is stuck in the past. “Show me the code” was a popular slogan when Microsoft threatened to use it’s patent portfolio against linux, I think it’s time Open Source enthusiasts followed their own slogans.

Finally, this whole business of “Microsoft is evil” is getting tiresome. Yes Microsoft did bad things. Yes, they’re out to get Linux and free software. Maybe Novell is a sell out. So? I don’t like them either. Don’t use Windows and close down your Hotmail account. If you read Jo Shields’reply, you’ll see that Microsoft had no hand in the development of Mono and the agreements with Novell do not cover it. Tomboy and F-Spot are free applications running on a free runtime system. It is reimplementation of a Microsoft standard, containing no Microsoft code. If you still think that Mono is ‘tainted’ because of the association, then that’s your choice and you can take Mono off your system and vow never to use Mono-reliant apps. As a user of free software that is your choice. But it is not your right nor your duty to force other people to do the same. Choice is at the core of free software and if you are trying to tell people that they can’t use or distribute some piece of software, then you are no better than Microsoft or other commercial software makers pulling users into vendor lock in.

At this point, I’m going to change track and talk about a post that appeared as a blip on Reddit a few days ago. It’s called Thumbs Down on Clojure and it basically denounces Clojure as a false Lisp because it interfaces tightly with Java and so has to abandon a lot of the ‘pure’ principles behind real Lisp. Now I have nothing at all against the author’s actual post and I actually like it that he is speaking his mind. The author drew a lot of flak from Reddit users because he placed purity above practicality and more importantly because he had nothing but vaporware to offer as an alternative.

To tell the truth, I have very mixed opinions about what this guy is doing (and talking about). Having seen the power of Lisp, I understand the attraction of purity. Having struggled to find a good cross-platform UI toolkit that doesn’t take a CS major to install makes me believe that when it comes to software, practicality trumps purity every single time (though pure and practical can coexist). And one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Though I use Linux and OS X, I have issues with modern operating systems in general. I would love to have an operating system with a fast, lean core but with a uniform, powerful, managed runtime on top in which all user applications are built and which achieves close-to-the-metal performance. I have some ideas on how it could be done, but I don’t have the knowledge or the resources to implement something like that. And till I’m in a position to make real contributions to the world around me, I don’t think it’s fair for me to deride the works that others are doing to make the world a little better for all of us.

The core thread behind both the above issues is that free software really isn’t free at all. There is a significant time and energy investment behind every single line of open source code that you’re using, which includes the software that runs this blog and probably the browser you’re using to read it. Ideals are well and good, but there are real .people who are behind all the free software we use today. Ultimately, the software and ideals don’t really matter, it’s the people that do. The people who make the software, the people who believe and stand up for the ideals and the people who can benefit from both the software and ideals without consciously taking part in either process. It makes me laugh when people like Stallman talk about software being ‘ethical or not’ when the only things that are really ethical are people and their actions. It almost makes me cry when people laugh and deride the work of other people but are incapable of doing anything about it. This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard a Lisp admirer say that they’re appalled at the state of modern Lisps. It’s an understandable sentiment, but what’s equally disturbing to me is that all these smart people (and some of them are really smart) can’t seem to be able to pull together and create something that can blow the socks of all the supposedely substandard solutions that people are using to get real work done right now.

So where does this leave all of us? The same place as where we started. Neither the Mono controversy nor the Lispers’ pining for the good old days is really anything new. Writing good software is hard and always has been, even with the best of tools. And it doesn’t help anyone to criticize productive projects if you don’t have an equally well working alternative. Opposing ideas on a purely ideological basis is often not the best idea (though there are notable exceptions which must not be forgotten). I think Linus Torvalds probably sums things up the best into two quotes. The first one, as I already mentioned, is “Talk is cheap. Show me the code.”. The other one which is equally valid given the circumstances and the rest of this article is “Anybody who tells me I can’t use a program because it’s not open source, go suck on rms. I’m not interested. 99% of that I run tends to be open source, but that’s my choice, dammit.”

So what are you all waiting for? Start showing some code.