Subject: Re: So what is an FSB anyway?
From: "Russell Nelson" <>
Date: Wed, 03 Feb 1993 10:41:10 EST

On Sun, 31 Jan 93 02:41:39 -0800, tiemann@CYGNUS.COM wrote:
>   [ various things about Free Software Businesses (FSB's) deleted ]
>   o Once free software hits its stride, can it and proprietary
>     software coexist in the same market?  Or will gcc drive out
>     pcc?
> I think a more general (and interesting) question is how free software
> companies will compete.

Yes, definitely interesting.  I think that competition is good.  It
reassures people that they're not paying unreasonable prices. It's a
signal that the service is in enough demand that the market can
support two suppliers.  It validates (or will validate) free software.

> Cygnus is the official maintainer of GDB for the FSF.  Some upstart
> company can decide to offer commercial support for GDB, but how
> should this work?  Do they toe the line and work cooperatively with
> Cygnus (and the FSF), or do they begin making their own changes?
> In the latter case, chances are very good that their changes are
> not in the interest of the FSF (because they do not further the GNU
> project specifically), and thus Cygnus has no obligation (by
> agreement with the FSF) to ever merge their changes. Cygnus may
> also have no interest in merging their changes because that costs
> eng effort which the upstart competitor will not pay for.

Well, here's my philosophy on that: Free software essentially owns
itself.  Just like DNA uses people to reproduce itself, free software
uses people to reproduce and improve itself.  If the free software
isn't good enough, it doesn't get improved.  If the improvements are
good, they get merged with other good improvements.

Just because the software is free, and modifications are available,
doesn't mean that all modifications are good.

> How does the free software market account for the profits and losses
> of its industry as free software programs splinter?  We have already
> seen half a dozen companies try to do their own thing with GDB, and
> it's pretty clear that overall their individual efforts have a
> negative, rather than a postive impact on the value of GDB.

_splinter_.  That's a good term for what happens when changes to a
free program are not merged back into a canonical source.  But
splintering is really just another reason why someone would pay for
support: "I want this from the FOO version and that from the BAR
version". I don't think it's a really big deal.

> Can a market predicated on the theory that competition is good survive
> if we determine that competition is more harmful than cooperation?

Aha!  Absent government meddling, the free market will solve any
problem (I say this because I have confidence in people's ability to
do what is best for themselves; the free market responds to that).
If cooperation is more "competitive" than competition, then people
who cooperate will succeed.

>   o How does a FSB develop new software?
> The same way a proprietary company does.  It's no more paradoxical to
> spend money on developing a free software package that potentially
> everybody can use without paying for a copy than it is to develop a
> proprietary package that potentially nobody will ever buy.

I'll address this in a separate message entitled "The Free Rider Problem."

>   o A FSB that sells support has an incentive to do a poor job (not
>     fix all the bugs).  Of course, they also have an incentive to do
>     a good job.  All in all, they need to keep their customers happy,
>     but they also have to give their customers a reason to continue
>     purchasing support.  In my experience, users who have no problems
>     have no need for support either.
> If your clients all live in 50-story glass office buildings, there
> will be a high demand for window-washing services, but not much demand
> for landscaping.  You don't have to do a bad job of washing the
> windows to remain employed.  In my experience, there's always a need
> for support of some kind or another, it's usually a question of
> tailoring the support to meet the clients needs.

And perhaps such support does not pay a full-time salary, in which
case the FSB needs to diversify.

> In the limit, you can sell insurance policies (but note that to do
> so you have to be a damn good sales person, which is not of
> interest to most technical folks).