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Who Cares if FOSS Is Profitable?

By Katherine Noyes
May 13, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Money makes the world go round, or so it's been said, but what about the world of FOSS?

Who Cares if FOSS Is Profitable?

Sparked by a recent Glyn Moody column on The H, that's the question bloggers have been wrestling with in recent days.

On the one hand, we've got the fact that FOSS is generally free -- a feature that tends to minimize the revenue-generating opportunities, at least at first glance. On the other hand, we have compelling evidence from companies like Red Hat that it is indeed possible to make money aplenty with free and open source software.

But just how important is it that FOSS become a revenue generator? Does it, in fact, matter at all? Linux bloggers, as per their wont, had plenty to say.

'More Influence at the Political Table'

Moody begins his column by pointing out that Richard Stallman himself has said he's not opposed to making money off FOSS.

"As companies like Red Hat have grown in size and profitability, so has the credibility of free software options among larger enterprises," he went on. "Profits mean that other, smaller open source companies can be bought, providing a useful payback for entrepreneurs that encourages others to enter the fray by funding new open source start-ups.

"Money also means more influence at the political table through increased visibility and clout," he added.

From 'Analogue Scarcity' to 'Digital Abundance'

What is even more important, however, is that the arrival and success of businesses based on free software "is in many respects a forerunner of coming shifts in many other industries," Moody asserted -- most notably, digital music.

"Free software's ability to spawn successful companies based on this model is a vital data point that can be used to help industries come up with strategies for coping with the shift from businesses predicated around analogue scarcity to ones based on digital abundance," he concluded.

Linux geeks, however, weren't so sure.

'It's Called Begging'

"You cannot be serious. Asking strangers for money for no reason is not a viable business model -- it's called 'begging,'" wrote evil_capitalist in The H comments.

"The article never does address why making money from software matters," evil_capitalist added. "It matters because it attracts talent, innovation, and capital. Which in turn drives the growth of products that deliver value, expand markets, and advance technology. Sorry folks, but the FOSS movement is driving investment *away* from the software field."

The debate went on from there before moving on to Slashdot, where bloggers jumped on it with fresh vigor.

It soon became apparent that this was not a topic that could be ignored. Linux Girl settled onto her favorite bar stool and began to ask around.

'Just Ask My Wife'

"Of course making money with FLOSS matters," blogger Robert Pogson asserted. "Just ask my wife as she spends my pay.

"Of course I am not a programmer depending on programming to earn a living, but FLOSS helps me do my job and earns me the respect of peers in my profession," Pogson explained.

There are many ways to make money from FOSS, he noted, "from selling CDs to coding the kernel. I teach users how to use it. They let me lead for a while and then tell me to follow or get out of the way."

One of the foremost moneymakers from FOSS is Google, Pogson pointed out. "They give away their major product, search, so they can charge for another, advertising.

"People who think there is no way to make money from something that costs nothing have no imagination/soul," he concluded.

'Minimal Traction'

"Gosh, one would think it would have to," Slashdot blogger yagu told Linux Girl. "I'm a great fan of FOSS, a user and a contributor, but software from FOSS are real products and I don't think they can exist in a vacuum -- ultimately, some sense of value must be associated with FOSS.

"Is it by accident that RedHat makes money 'selling' something corporations could have free?" yagu went on. "Nope. By buying GNU/Linux, customers gain satisfaction they are consuming a real product."

The concept of "free," for whatever reason, "holds minimal traction," yagu concluded. "Yes, it's great we have people willing to contribute and create the wealth (irony?) of great free software, but unless money flows, FOSS to most potential customers is merely a passing curiosity."

'Depends on the Project'

Whether it's important to make money "depends on the project," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined. "I can see wanting to be paid for business software, office software or deep kernel magic, but I just can't picture someone paying me to work on the Acidblood IRC bot."

On a personal level, meanwhile, "how much I care depends on how much work I put into it and if other people are making money off of my work," he explained.

On the other hand, "rich or poor, it's always nice to have money," said Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

'Practically Free Doesn't Scale'

"There are some things that just won't -- or can't -- get done without funding, so somewhere or other, someone has to generate revenue," Hudson explained. "For example, bandwidth is so cheap it's practically free, but 'practically free' doesn't scale when a million people download an install DVD."

Making money is what gives people and projects "the option of continuing to be free, as opposed to 'selling out' or abandoning the whole thing just to pay the bills," Hudson added. "The question is how to generate the dollars, but that's been a problem since long before computers. :-)"

Indeed, "commercial interest has given a huge boost to FOSS," Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza agreed. "Without it, we'd still have FOSS, but we'd have less of it, and much of it would be of much lower quality."

'FOSS Will End Up Dying Out'

Whether that interest will continue, however, is a matter of some debate.

"A CS degree is expensive, and there simply aren't enough high-paying FOSS jobs to make it worth it," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet charged. "If I just paid in excess of (US)$50,000 for my education, what are the odds I'm gonna want to spend time doing 'charity' work when I got students loans that need paying?"

Moving forward, then, "while you may see a few using FOSS to pad a weak resume, I honestly think the days of legions of Linux hackers are behind," hairyfeet predicted. "Most will be writing apps for Steve's latest iToy while working in some proprietary business somewhere.

"Having someone paying the bills and calling the shots just makes better software IMHO, and while Linux guys may howl, they know I'm right," he added. "That is actually why I think FOSS will end up dying out."

What say you to that, dear readers? Will the money question propel FOSS and the other industries that follow its lead into the future, or will it shift the balance back toward the proprietary side? Linux Girl eagerly awaits your comments.

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