Ben Laurie blathering

Open Source Is Just Economics

A number of conversations I have had recently indicate to me that a lot of the world still doesn’t get what’s behind open source. It’s easy: economics.

The first thing you can trivially explain is why people work on open source at all. This has been a source of a vast amount of speculation, particularly irritatingly by sociologists. Ben Hyde has a fantastic list to which I will only add the explanation I love to hate: geek pride. We do it just to show off to each other.

Nope, it’s all bollocks – the motivation is simple: by solving your common problem together, you reduce your costs. There is absolutely no point in financing five different companies to produce five different products that don’t quite do what you want – far better to tweak the open source thing to do exactly what you need (often expressed as “scratching your itch” around the ASF).

Some people whine that, because this is an option open only to geeks, open source is not really available to completely open participation. Well, kinda. If you aren’t a geek yourself, you can always hire one. What do you mean, you don’t want to spend your money on free stuff? Why not? We all spend our time on it. Time that we could convert into money, if we so chose.

So why don’t we? Because participating in the open source projects we participate in is worth more to us, in purely monetary terms, in the long run. This is why I no longer have much to do with Apache: it does what I need. I have no itch to scratch.

This leads me into the second easily explainable fact. People complain that open source projects don’t care about users. It’s true. They don’t – they care about people who are participating in the costs of producing the software. If you aren’t contributing, why would your voice matter?

Of course, you have to be careful when applying these obvious truths to what you see around you. For example, the presence of companies like Red Hat in the market complicates analysis. They have their own set of economic drivers, including the needs of their customers, which they then apply to the calculation around their participation in various projects. As the reach of open source extends, so do end users actually start to get an indirect say in what happens. But it costs them. Money.

Back in the good old days, it was so much simpler. All it cost me then was time.


  1. This is a very valid entry you make here.

    Linux is messed with commercial interests. Even if you have a small distribution, you ultimately depend on the people who provide the most basic tools of the system (glibc, gcc, kernel, modular xorg)

    And the people in charge there are either not interested in your voice anyway, or are driven by their boss needs.

    In a way the situation is in no different from the Microsoft economy, and even on windows there were many people producing good quality open source solutions for no cost (for you, as “customer”) at all, thus free of charge.

    Comment by she — 27 Jan 2008 @ 13:10

  2. I wrote a text exploring the same concept here:

    Software is meant to be free!

    Assuming a competitive, market-based economy, any software of sufficiently broad usage is bound to become free, as its marginal production cost is null. The free software movement is not much more than the social expression of this basic economical fact…

    See more elaborate discussion here:

    Comment by Thomas Baudel — 27 Jan 2008 @ 13:39

  3. It’s interesting that you chose the one declining “feature” of open source to defend its economics.

    I have found lately that more and more FOSS advocates are openly admitting that the “you can tweak the source code” thing isn’t really an appealing feature, especially for more major projects (such as linux or OO).

    When you tweak the source code to adjust something to suit your tastes, you now own a product. If you choose to “tweak” a linux distro to suit some specific application, you’ve forked the tree and now own an operating system. Every bug fix, every patch, every update will have to be combed, tested, and regression tested against your branch of the fork.

    As I’ve said, I’ve found a lot of FOSS advocates are admitting that general consumers don’t really do this.

    You can submit your change into the project, of course. But then it has to be accepted. And with major FOSS projects, this acceptance goes through the exact same triage that commercial software does – how much work is it, who does it serve, is it worth it?

    And if you’re not a coder, and just don’t feel like hiring a coder, then you’re every bit at the whim of the open source project management as you are at the whim of a commercial software vendor.

    IMHO, don’t try to analyze the economics – just evaluate the pros and cons, benefits vs. expenses. Then make an informed choice.

    Comment by Philo — 27 Jan 2008 @ 18:48

  4. […] For example open source projects tend to many tiers of contributors.  Ben Laurie recently was reacting to a common accusation we encounter from outside observers about open source that we […]

    Pingback by Ascription is an Anathema to any Enthusiasm » Blog Archive » The Smallest are the Biggest Customer — 30 Jan 2008 @ 14:49

  5. I still like to think that all great things take is time. Organizing the money part gets distracting.

    Comment by Richard M. Conlan — 31 Jan 2008 @ 10:33

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress