Sometimes you’ll run into the odd company who’ll just strike you as some of the most selfless people on the planet. I’m not talking about charities, businesses with a single philanthropist at the top, or contractors building schools in Africa, though all of those quality as selfless. I’m talking about the people who create some of the most important high-quality software on the planet, and then give it away for free for people to customise, re-use and send to their friends for all eternity.
So why do this, you ask? Why give away software when you can sell it? From a business perspective, it seems like suicide, and I’d be inclined to agree with you if there weren’t so many success stories. In fact, I’m using one of them right now. My computer at work runs on Ubuntu, an OS based on GNU/Linux. It’s fast, it’s customisable and most importantly, it’s completely free. I’d honestly argue that, if Mac OSX had never come into existence, I’d be using this over Windows without a second thought.
At first, I was sceptical. “A free operating system? God, this is going to be horrid,” I mused to myself. Within a day I was blown away by the thousands of programs available, the speed, and the fact that the taskbar was made by one team of people, and the clock was made by another. A patchwork creation brought to life by a community of people determined to give back to a community who, through Linux and other projects, had already given them so much.
Back in 1991, when computers weren’t generally something you turned phones into and Wi-Fi sounded about as capable and reliable as Scotch mist (not much has changed, then), a Finnish student by the name of Linus Torvalds began to create an operating system. He then uploaded an early version, stating that it was a free project and anyone could use it or contribute to it. Many people did, and it evolved into the IT community’s love-child. Had he sold it for a smaller price than Windows once it reached a saleable level of quality, he’d be a millionaire, at the very least. But he stuck to his community-shaped guns and went for broke, quite literally.
If you’re a small business and you make software for niche purposes – perhaps an archive system with a USP – then you could be attracting a community around your product. There are many advantages to this, most notably a hold on that particular market, and high traffic levels to your website if the niche is becoming ever more popular (remember micro-blogging before Twitter exploded? No, nor do I, but to say it never existed before then is ridiculous conjecture, at best).
Try this. Make the software open source, and offer the community the chance to do some of the work with you – they’re probably already suggesting fixes or even hacks to fix things you either weren’t aware were broken or that you don’t have the time or the resources to fix yourself. I say with, and not for, because they’re not your employees, and in most cases, programmers who take the time out of their own days to help yours are just as much a part of the team, though the phrase becomes ever more ephemeral as a result.
It’s a risk, but you’d be surprised at how popular you become once you give people the chance to download it free from your site. Not only does it render piracy of your software completely redundant (who would you rather download from? A random dodgy site, or the company itself?), it also makes for some impressive advertising revenue. Not forgetting donations, of course, and you’d be surprised at how many people do actually donate to keep something they love going.
The open source community are not those evil little [expletive deleted] who pirate software packages. They’re valuable members of the online community who contribute their personal resources – time being one of them, in addition to money – to making your software better. No one’s taking your rights to the software away, and no one is legally allowed to sell the distribution itself, so you’re safe there. Combine that with a bit of social networking to build your community into an army of little open-hearted archivers, and you’ve got a philanthropic business that still makes a good amount of money.
Huzzah – it’s not suicide, it’s just smart and forward thinking. Look at Android, and free Apps, and tell me there’s more people downloading the paid versions. Can’t? Exactly.