Subject: small worlds and better than ransom
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <stephen@xemacs.org>
Date: Sat, 06 Oct 2007 03:53:45 +0900

Thomas Lord writes:

 > The "ransom" models of funding R&D don't quite work.

I agree, but not because of uncertainty about product, but rather
because of social issues.  People who are willing to pay for a
proprietary product generally either don't care about eventual open
source release or actively dislike it (eg, if it's an input into their
product, thus inviting new entry into their market).  People who want
*open* source (as opposed to access to source, which could be granted
as part of a proprietary product) general believe in a mutual
contribution model, and will be put off by the ransom demand.

 > They say "I will release a program that does X but only if the
 > public ponies up $Y."  Variations might let the exact value of $Y
 > float but all ransom variants have in common that "X" -- what the
 > program being sold does -- is known in advance.

This is not entirely true; X can float as well, although it may
require tedious renegotiation with all those have have paid in the
past.  Furthermore, the exact details of the UI, performance, etc are
rarely specified.

 > Either way, you aren't selling the activity of doing R&D: you're
 > selling past work.

This is the way it works in almost all pure-science grant programs
(NSF, for example), though.  As RMS pointed out in the GNU Manifesto,
people do speculative programming (and research) because they like to
do it.  They get themselves funded by showing evidence of competence,
usually past output (except for Young Investigator-type awards), much
of which is to be integrated into the allegedly new content of the
proposal, rarely on the basis of the wonderfulness of the proposal.

 > A researcher with a promising project can perhaps bootstrap
 > by publishing an early version of the project, but then selling,
 > primarily, "pre-purchases" of future versions at a customer-determined
 > price.

This looks to me to have all the disadvantages of VC funding, except
from the researcher's point of view (he doesn't have to give up
equity).

 > Customers who pre-purchase, rather than wait for, release 0.2
 > establish a relationship with the R&D vendor.   When they
 > speak to the vendor they are heard not as a member of the
 > general public, but as a valued customer whose repeat business
 > is hoped for.

A problem is that the valued customer*s* may have a wide variety of
priorities.  To the extent that those conflict, some customers will
lose.  This uncertainty is (in many cases) larger than either the
uncertainty about what "X" is, or the uncertainty about if and when
"X" will be delivered.

After all the dancing is done, what's left is "if you need/want to
maintain control of the development process but to be paid for the
product, use a proprietary model."  If you're feeling generous, simply
*promise* to release as open source under certain (unacceptable to a
profiteer) circumstances, and keep your promises.  As you gain a
reputation for keeping your promises, RMS will heap hot coals on your
head, but both the people who want the best now and are willing to
pay, and those who are willing to accept last year's version as long
as it's free (in whichever sense) will come to like you and give your
their business.  It worked for Aladdin/Ghostscript for many years;
even ESP Ghostscript was more about the CUPS business plan than any
real clamor in the community for a more advanced GPL Ghostscript.

 > R&D  vendors are unlikely to use cheap drinks, think steaks,

I could be attracted by a think steak. :-)

 > flashing lights, and noisy environments to encourage
 > reckless purchases by their gambling customers.)

DNA Lounge, anyone? *chortle*