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Olivier Thereaux

Open Source: the costly “free”

joanplanas - free hugs In the past 25 years since the launch of the Free Software Movement, we have made great progress in convincing the world, in particular the business world, that Open Source software could, and should be taken seriously. A lot of the software powering businesses today are the same free software that CXOs would never want to hear about a decade ago, and people like Bruce Perens deserve a lot of credit for that. However, all these years of advocacy have also created a noxious myth of a free lunch: that free software just builds itself through flowery good will and smooth collaborations. And all that without any money involved.

(Image by joanplanas on flickr)

The truth is a little more complex. In my humble observation, the large majority of FLOSS is either a small personal project (the “scratching my own itch type”) with little or no collaboration going on, and all done on a single person’s copious free time, or a larger project with financial backing for development and community management from governments, corporations or other organisations. Large, well organised open-source projects with no-one on the payroll are extremely rare exceptions.

Because of my new status as consultant to W3C, I have to track very closely how much time I spend on each of my projects. Far from being a hassle, this has provided me with fascinating data on how much it actually costs to run those projects.

For example, I recently worked on a new feature for the markup validator, which I believe could have a significant impact on how usable the tool is. For most end-users, the change will be almost invisible, yet making their life easier. I counted how much time I spent on the feature, and when adding up the research, code, discussions (including handling of feedback and ideas from users) and testing, I end up with a gross cost somewhere between 500 and 800 USD. And that is not counting the “donated” time of the people who contributed ideas and feedback. It could have been cheaper, if someone had worked on their free time on a patch, but even then, the community and QA work would likely have been done by people on a payroll.

Friend and ex-W3C colleague Karl Dubost often suggested that I should put a price on each bug and feature that would be submitted by the community. The idea would be that if someone submitted a patch, it would of course get in for free, but if the community cared about getting the bug fixed or new feature in without the wait, then everyone interested would chip in.

Maybe he was up to something.

One Response to “Open Source: the costly “free””

  1. oliviert says:

    Small update: Yves reminded me of ohloh, which tries to estimate the cost of (open-source) software projects. No idea if their methodology is sound, but it does have the positive effect of showing that *someone* pays for these project, either in time dedication or salaries… The W3C Markup Validator is there on ohloh, along with the CSS Validator.


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