profit and loss in open source

Thu, Sep 16, 2010

I’m a fan of Dragons' Den on the BBC as it’s an interesting peek into the world of business, which quite fascinates me and the other day Duncan Bannatyne said something that made me think about how I interact with the open source community:

Turnover is vanity Profit is sanity

Profit is a strange word to use in open source as by definition there is no profit as the software is free but I do recognise a version of that statement when I write open source software. What I mean is I tend to write open source software as an investment in myself. I count new contributions as profit, whereby I increase my knowledge of a particular area while at the same time helping to make it a better area for other people. I also learn new skills and ways of doing old things from the other developers in the community, which increases my profit margins. Coming to an open source project for the first time, I invest a certain amount of my time and skills and in return I add to those skills and to my knowledge of that area of expertise. So for an initial layout of time, I can profit quite quickly by developing and learning at the same time.

After a while though, the profit margin drops off and I find I start to get into the vanity side of things. I’m not learning anything new. Instead, I’m contributing because I’m expected to contribute, either to maintain something I developed or to keep up with latest releases, for example, keeping an open source plugin compatible with the application it’s written for. This isn’t too much of a problem if the contributions are in line with what I do for a day job but if $WORK decides to move away from a particular system, then I have to think long and hard about maintaining my contributions.

When you contribute to open source, especially plugins for applications, users expect you to maintain them and after the initial profit making phase, it’s just a case of keeping up with the releases but on your own timescale. I’ve been hassled by users of an open source application to update plugins to their timescale. One even gave me a deadline of the next day as they were about to rollout a customised version of the application and wanted my plugin, which apparently was critical to their success. This is clearly an abuse of open source software and developers. Users of open source software rarely understand the amount of time and effort developers put into it and the goodwill quickly breaks down when they realise the developers don’t work for them. They try to build castles on shifting sands.

On the whole though, developing open source software is a hoot. The profit margins can be as high as you like. Pick an open source project that you think will challenge you and go for it. Read the open issues and wish list and contribute. You won’t get committer access but your profit margin will be sky high.

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