Originally Published: Wednesday, 15 September 1999 Author: Jeff Alami
Published to: columnists/Jeff Alami Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Free Software Entrepreneur's Guide

Some industry observers, skeptical of the Free Software community, like to say that programmers need to eat. They imply that with Free Software, no one makes money, and proprietary software is needed. First of all, these observers neglect that Free Software is about freedom, not price. In any case, there are plenty of ways to make money in the Free Software community. Let's look at a few interesting ways for an enterprising developer to make money with Free Software....

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Some industry observers, skeptical of the Free Software community, like to say that programmers need to eat. They imply that with Free Software, no one makes money, and proprietary software is needed. First of all, these observers neglect that Free Software is about freedom, not price. In any case, there are plenty of ways to make money in the Free Software community. Let's look at a few interesting ways for an enterprising developer to make money with Free Software.

Support and Consulting

The most often quoted way to make money with Free Software is to provide support services. Most of the Linux distribution vendors provide support for their customers, including paid support contracts. Some companies, such as Linuxcare, specialise in support services for companies and individuals. Consulting services are also quite common. Someone with knowledge of what Free Software can and cannot do can provide valuable information to clients looking for solutions.

Imagine a consulting company called "The Exterminators." The Exterminators is a group of highly skilled developers who have experience with fixing bugs in software. In addition to bugfixing Free Software, the Exterminators could sell contract services to Free Software companies who are looking to quash as many bugs as possible. The Exterminators could additionally develop and package a bug reporting application much like BugZilla.

Retail Packaging

Another common way to make money with Free Software is to package it. This involves developing Free Software, and packaging it with a CD-ROM, documentation, and support. The package could be purchased via retail outlets or online ordering. Prime examples of software that could be packaged in this fashion include Linux distributions, large office suites, games, and multimedia applications. Most of these applications are too large to be downloaded, and thus you are providing a service to the marketplace by having it available on CD.

The advantage of retail packaging is simple -- you benefit from the mass marketplace. Boxed sets can come with good profit margins, depending on your manufacturing and distribution costs. Unfortunately, getting in the Free Software retail business has its disadvantages: high barriers to entry on retail shelves, the risk of people legally copying and selling your software, and the resources needed to bundle free support with your package.

Cooperatively-Funded Development

Cooperatively-funded Free Software development is a relatively new concept. Free Software developers looking for compensation for their programming work could consider getting funding in this manner. Sites such as Cosource.com and sourceXchange are brokers for cooperative development. Development jobs are posted on these sites, and money is pledged from various interested people. When the job is complete, the developer gets paid, and the code is released as Free Software.

This method of making money has its advantages. You can work when you want to, and there's no long-term commitments. You get to choose your project from a list of needs. It does have disadvantages, though. You can't use these sites for a living just yet. Also, disagreements among the developers and people pledging money for the development could make it quite hard to make money.

Currently, the cooperative Free Software development sites have a few jobs posted. If you are a developer looking for this month's rent, you can always port the Kaffe free Java VM to the BeOS platform for $2225.00. Writing an X client for the ircbase IRC utility could get you $313.00. You could be paid $550 for adding Pentium III optimisations to Linux OpenGL libraries.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, there are many ways to make money in the Free Software community. Some I've missed include selling hardware with the software, and providing content (books, Web sites) and Web-based services relevant to the Free Software community. One method that isn't as encouraged is selling proprietary addons with your Free Software, much like Sendmail's strategy. And of course, taking something free and making it proprietary isn't good either. The two last strategies can make you money without helping the Free Software community's ideals.

Most Free Software developers make applications without money in mind. They are fulfilling their own software needs by making them happen. But there will always be entrepreneurs. We must encourage these entrepreneurs to consider Free Software and the ways to make money while benefitting the community, or else they will be more likely to start proprietary software companies.

Jeff Alami (jeff@linux.com) is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux.com. In fact, he breathes, eats and sleeps Linux.com. Somebody please help him find a life!





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