Working for $0
Dave Winer writes:
OSCON, last week, has done its job and stirred the embers of the Great Open Source Debate of the 1990s. I found myself writing in an email yesterday: “Very little really usable software has come from people who are willing to work for $0. (I chose my words carefully, infrastructure is another matter entirely.) Further, it’s weird to say, as Richard Stallman does, that by coercing programmers to work for $0 that that’s freedom. To me it seems obvious that that’s slavery.”
My response, in an email to Dave:
I’m surprised by each of these sentiments: that we’re not writing usable software, that we’re not making money, and that it’s coercion (and thus slavery).
Some background on me. I work as a consultant using almost 100% Open Source / Free Software, providing new solutions and support for existing software. I contribute to The GNOME Project as release team manager and other things, and am president of the Sydney Linux User’s Group. So yeah, I really enjoy this stuff.
I’ll speak mainly from my experiences with GNOME.
On the usability front, we’ve seen some massive improvements in our 2.0 release. It’s really hotting up. The Sun Microsystems hackers working on GNOME are pushing us towards 100% Section 508 compliance – we have the framework in place in 2.0 – which means that our accessibility support will be up to US Government standards. We have an awesome desktop environment, plenty of great apps (and a few first class ones such as the Evolution groupware suite). Yeah, we’re still playing catch-up, but in four years we’ve covered a hell of a lot of ground. It only gets better.
We’re making money, too. Plenty of GNOME hackers are employed to hack on GNOME. That’s a simple ‘software company pays programmer’ equation. The various OS/FS-involved companies are doing a good job of bringing in the dollars too (I don’t think OS/FS handicaps them very much at all compared to other service-based software businesses). I also earn my keep with OS/FS.
The last point about programmers being coerced and thus enslaved is *very* interesting from a Free Software perspective. There are lots of reasons to work on OS/FS, so it’s hard to sum up why we do it. Linus Torvalds’ simple analysis “just for fun” is probably the most accurate.
Constructing cool software with a bunch of people across the planet, and being able to play with and improve it is *fun*! Sad as it may seem, I get a kick out of just helping this process along, in my role as release team manager. I’m not the greatest hacker in the world, so I help out in other ways. But I also do it because I think it’s a good deed (plus, I think it’s ‘right’, but I don’t think everything else is therefore ‘wrong’).
It takes all types. Some of the paid hackers do it as their job, some of them are pretty chuffed that they can be paid to do what they enjoy. Some of us have wives and kids and need a hobby, some of us find that we learn more from the practice of software development than the theory we learn at university. Some of us do it out of a sense of purity, some as an actively violent response to proprietary software. Some of us do it because we’re bloody good at it, some of us because we look up to those who are, and want to help them. In the end, I think most of us do it because it’s fun – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t do it at all.
Don’t bother emailing a blogger. Link to them.