Subject: Re: Economics of software distribution
From: ghost@ALADDIN.COM (L. Peter Deutsch)
Date: Tue, 16 Mar 93 22:00:38 PDT

> > Similarly, you can't not provide free support and be competitive.
> 
> There is no such thing as free support.  I think you're referring to
> pre-paid support.

Thanks, that is what I meant.

> > Individual end-users aren't in the market for additional services.
> 
> But nonetheless, they want their software to work.

That's right, and they want it to work without having to call anyone --
ever.  If you distribute 100,000 copies of your software in six months,
and 1% of the users call you with a question that takes 10 minutes to
answer, that's approximately one full working month out of those six that
you've just spent answering those questions, and those users won't be
willing to pay extra for it.

> > there is no "cost-free" distribution mechanism for it like the
> > Internet,
> 
> "it"?  You mean mass-market free software?  Ahhh, but shareware
> houses and BBSes are very happy to distribute free software.  For a
> fee, there's even a company that will upload your software to dozens
> of BBSes and shareware manufacturers.

True, if you're willing to accept a distribution system that is guaranteed
to be distributing obsolete and/or incomplete filesets.  This has been a
constant problem with Ghostscript.

> > Especially if the documentation is also copylefted (and I
> > don't see why documentation should be treated differently from the
> > software it describes),
> 
> Ahhh, but, while you *do* see people writing free software, you don't
> see people writing free books.  Perhaps they might if they realized
> that they could get free distribution from shareware houses.

Ah, but that's shareware, not "free" software.  Or are the two compatible?
Certainly no GNU software that I've seen includes a requirement, or even a
request, to send money to the author.  In fact, FSF has just come up
against harsh economic reality in this respect, and is broadcasting what
amount to appeals to do something that to me seems at odds with the free
software ethic (namely, buy from them, when you can get the software for
little or no charge elsewhere).

I think this points up a basic problem with the free software model.  No
book author in his or her right mind would distribute their creative work
free, since that work is the only way they can make a living.  It's only
because we (well, some of us) believe there is a secondary service market
that we think software authors *should* be able to make a living giving
away *their* creative works.

To be honest, the closer I look at the economic model for free software,
the less I believe it.  I'm distributing a piece of commercial-grade
software that represents several thousand hours of very high-grade
engineering work free because I like the idea of having it in lots of
people's hands, and because so many people are willing to contribute
*their* efforts to it only because they know those contributions (and
those of others) will come back to them, and because it's great
word-of-mouth advertising for my commercial business.  But if I didn't
have the commercial business (and I'm not referring to labor-intensive
activities where I don't see how I could ever get ahead of the game), I
don't think I'd be spending my time on free software; I'd look for a paid
position or activity where the results were equally rewarding.  I don't
think there is anything special about free software that is different from
doing any other creative activity for free: for example, writing prose, or
composing music (both of which I've also done).  I'm comfortable with the
idea that some people want to do it for idealistic or personal reasons,
but so far, what I'm getting from the discussion here is that the only
reason you can make a living doing "free" things is that you're doing
"unfree" things to subsidize them.  I think the comment about
documentation was a very telling one: you can only expect people to pay
for documentation if either law (copyright) or technology (high-grade
printing) make it less "free".  If you could go down to your corner
instant printing shop and print a nice copy of documentation supplied on a
CD-ROM that cost a fraction of the book cost (just those parts you wanted
badly enough that you weren't willing to browse them on the screen, of
course), documentation wouldn't subsidize code any more.  Then what?

L. Peter Deutsch :: Aladdin Enterprises :: P.O. box 60264, Palo Alto, CA 94306
ghost@aladdin.com, ...decwrl!aladdin!ghost ; voice 415-322-0103 ; fax 322-1734
	    "Implementation is the sincerest form of flattery."