Almost Free Software – Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

The debate over whether or not software should be made freely available has been around for a long time. Can we afford such idealism? Perhaps there is a middle ground.

There are two different threads when we talk about “free software”. The first involves releasing actual code for public use; the second discussion is about providing free access to an application but without giving away the code. The latter is obviously a lot more manageable these days because of the SaaS model. But why would you bother? If you have to pay for employees, premises and some hosting, you better make sure there is some revenue coming in.

On the other hand, the fact that I can even publish this article here today is a direct result of the “crowd sourcing” approach that has spilled over from the open source community into the development of social media. Also, I’m sure we can all think of plenty of businesses which gave away their software and then built a lucrative consulting revenue stream around it. So there are clearly some tangible benefits to encouraging the open source philosophical movement to flourish and grow.

There was a great discussion thread about the (non)monetisation of Web 2.0 over on Diversity recently. Giving your product away, before you can figure out how to make money out of it, is the quickest way to destroy value in any business argues Ben. I agree. Using venture capital to prop up an ultimately unsustainable business model with over-inflated valuations is an abomination only one step removed from pyramid selling. But, maybe it’s how you go about giving away your software that matters.

We have a couple of products in the pipeline at ideegeo but with two completely different marketing and monetisation strategies planned. The first is a mobile application targetted at a niche audience which we will sell for quite a low margin through an online store. I will be overjoyed if we break even on the time spent developing it. However, it will raise our profile and demonstrate capability. The second product will be given away completely for free through our own website. The hook is that we get paid a small amount every time someone actually uses it (which is often). The clients will happily pay because the application demonstrably drives more business their way. If the application needs improvement, we will also get very rapid feedback.

My point is that the Internet has completely revolutionalised both software development and marketing. If you develop “almost free” software and then make it available to a very large number of users at only a very modest cost, everybody wins.

Next month Unlimited Potential are proudly hosting Richard Stallman as special guest speaker in the lead up to the Geeks, Games and Gadgets ’08 event.

Stallman founded the GNU Project an open source software development project that contributed substantively to the genesis of the Linux operating system. At times controversial, the title of “open source guru” seems quite aptly applied in the context of Stallman’s thought leadership. Social media and especially Wikipedia had not even been conceived of at the time of this 1996 interview, but it illustrates his visionary abilities.

Whatever your position on open source or the debate around competing public licensing systems, this seminar is likely to be a thought provoking one. Registration is highly recommended for what will no doubt be a popular session.

7 thoughts on “Almost Free Software – Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

  1. “If you develop “almost free” software and then make it available to a very large number of users at only a very modest cost, everybody wins.”

    I think there’s a couple of scenarios where it still matters. As you’re talking about Richard Stallman then take his 1980s example of the printer that had a bug that he wanted to fix. Does that scenario still apply with SaaS? I’d say that it does… if there’s a bug then you can’t fix it unless you can get access to the code and set it up. I’m a web developer so I’m able to fix many bugs in software and for me the tech restrictions that exist with closed-source software also exist with most SaaS software.

    Now I know it’s not really my right to change SaaS software — it’s their work and their business and its’ their infrastructure. Those are good reasons. Again, however those are the same good reasons for proprietary software.

    SaaS isn’t very different, and most people understand that.

  2. Hi Matthew. That’s a fair comment.

    I think my point was that we have undergone a quiet revolution in, not only the way we create software, but also in how we distribute it. It is precisely because of the open source movement that this revolution occurred.

    In the 1980’s Stallman could not go to a blog or wiki and get direct access to the developer with his suggestion, but he predicted that possibility in the future. Social media empowers the end users of software to a far greater extent. In fact many software companies depend on getting user feedback to improve their product.

  3. LOL: Don’t let Richard see you say “the title of ‘open source guru’ seems quite aptly applied in the context of Stallman’s thought leadership.” He’s Free Software (i.e. Gratis) all the way. :-)


  4. If you check out the video link in my article, you will see that he also acknowledges that software developers like to get paid sometimes.

    But yeah, I appreciate he has some strong philosophical viewpoints, which will make for an intriguing session downunder. I’m only just starting to get my head around what he stands for.

    Apologies to the purists.

  5. Actually, for some reason my post came back to me in the middle of the night when I realised I *should’ve* said “Libre” all the way. :-)


  6. I agree that almost free software is the road to ostensible cupidity.It offers a product that benefits all yet does not pick up on the half truth that the real aim of some developers is to be a Gannet under the blue blue sky of the financial market.So much of the internet is checkered with scams you would think that the guy who ran the pyramid sceams in the eighties simply went to university and learned how to make easy money in a way that indemnifies them from penalties.Education then helps them sublimate their true impulses into a more socially acceptable way of achieving their financial goals.The point then is that if one develops new software that individual will be more likely to be successful dependant on the nature of whether it is simply money that motivates them or not.It is indeed a matter of integrity because that is the most important thing in business.You cannot be truly successful if your dishonest and just want money.

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