Free Software, Paid Support

There is a thread on programmers.stackexchange.com that asks the question "Why do programmers write applications and then make them free?" The top answer right now is:

Because I don't want to feel obligated to provide technical support or offer refunds.

I have always found the free software approach to be instructive. There are many forms of creative expression out there and most of them involve a paid model. But there is a very vibrant community of software developers that build things and then make them available to anyone who want to use them for free. The key is that they don't offer any ongoing support or maintenance.

If you dissect the model, you'll see that the one time effort of building something is something many software creators are willing to do for free. But the ongoing time and effort of supporting and maintaining the software is not something that can be done for free.

This is, of course, the insight that provided the open source business model. Build software, give it to the community to maintain, and charge for ongoing support. There have been a number of successful businesses built using this model including Red Hat, MySQL, and hopefully, our portfolio company 10gen.

Having worked with software driven startups for many years now, I recognize the cost model all too well. The initial founding team can often build the product in three months. That team is often two or three developers. But once the software becomes popular, it requires dozens of developers to maintain and enhance the code base. It takes a team of tech ops people to keep the software available if it is a web service. It requires a team of people doing support via email. The cost of building software pales in comparison to the cost of maintaining, enhancing, and supporting it.

This approach can be mimicked by anything that is made of bits not atoms. It can be applied to writing. It can be applied to music. It can be applied to film. It can be applied to photography, anime, cartoons, etc, etc.

This does not mean that the paid model of writing and selling software is a bad one. It works and will continue to work. This does not mean that the paid model of recording and selling music is a bad one. It will work for some. This does not mean that the paid model of writing is a bad one. It will work for some.

But it does mean that the free model is very powerful and should be considered by anyone who like to create things but does not like to deal with hard work of maintaining and supporting the work. It is the model behind this blog in fact. You get the content for free. Anything else, you have to pay for with equity in your company.