No viable market for open source consumer desktop software

In a comment on A tale of a copycat site, Robert Renling asked me to elaborate on why I say there’s no viable model for open source consumer desktop software. I started adding a comment, but it seemed long enough to turn into a post.

Either there’s no viable model, or the people who have tried have not executed well.

I’m not aware of any successful business doing open source consumer-oriented software. There are some folks doing closed-source adware to make money while leaving the software free, but I don’t know how profitable it is and also think that much of the adware that gets installed is pretty sleazy stuff.

One could conceivably make money by having an open source component that attaches to a closed-source service. If they open sourced the code for the service, people would just get their own servers up and running.

The folks who are making money off of open source software are selling to businesses. Period. I’d be really interested in seeing a counter example, but I don’t think one exists.

Red Hat’s probably the best example. They’re the only one I can think of who even made a go of it. They had their nice boxed Linuxes available for years. As soon as broadband became widely used among geeks (the target market for Linux), the notion of ponying up $30 for a boxed Linux vs. just downloading it seemed pointless.

There are many, many examples of companies that effectively use and contribute to open source, but when it comes time to pay the bills, their products are closed source. Apple is a great example of this.

If someone can cite examples of people who are making a living on PayPal donations or t-shirt sales to support their open source product, I’d consider that a successful business. I don’t think anything even on that small scale has been shown to be sustainable.

It’s unclear to me what the future in consumer software really looks like. I know that, for myself, I’m not going to spend 2 hours to track down a crack for a $40 program (what’s your time worth?). That’s encouraging that there will continue to be a market for programs that provide a good value at a good price.

I can also envision an increase in the software that is provided as a service online. It’s easy to keep that closed-source (piracy is much less of a problem), plus some support headaches go away because you don’t generally have to worry about the bizarre software people have installed on their machines.

Some programs just work better on your desktop. Would you really want to keep all of your financial records on some company’s website (a la Quicken)? Quicken is one of those programs that seems like a reasonable value. And while there are open source competitors, they are no match in usability and features compared to Quicken.

The one thing I do know is that copy protection does not work. We’ll probably see an increase in stupid copy protection schemes that just annoy everyone while not stopping the pirates. I believe in taking some precautions, but not at the cost of serious customer inconvenience.

3 thoughts on “No viable market for open source consumer desktop software”

  1. Another option is what Bruce Schneier describes in _Secrets and Lies_. Set up a fund held by a trusted third party. People who want a feature donate to that feature’s fund. When it reaches the level you’ve determined earlier, you implement the feature, it’s verified by the third party, and then you release the source. If you don’t implement the feature by a predetermined time, the money is refunded.

  2. It’s funny. I just read that interview with Bram Cohen in Wired a couple of days back. I forgot that he said he’s making a living via donations. But, as you say, that’s hardly a predictable business model and there won’t be many BitTorrent-sized hits.

    The feature fund is an intriguing idea that I had read about a long time ago. That *could* work. I don’t think I’d want to be the first to give it a go, however. The first one to do it has to create/locate the infrastructure and the awareness. It’s always hard to get people to do things they’re not used to.

    Thanks for the counterpoints!

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