21.1 Shareware

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The software industry has been flirting with how to make money off of the low cost of distributing its product. The concept of shareware began long before the ideological free software movement as companies and individual developers began sharing the software as a cheap form of advertisement. Developers without the capital to start a major marketing campaign have passed around free versions of their software. People could try it and if it met their needs, they could pay for it. Those who didn't like it were honor-bound to erase their version.

Shareware continues to be popular to this day. A few products have made a large amount of money with this approach, but most have made very little. Some people, including many of the major companies, distribute their own crippled version of their product so people can try it. Crucial functions like the ability to print or save a document to the disk are usually left out as a strong encouragement to buy the real version.

Of course, free source products aren't the same thing as shareware because most shareware products don't come with the source code. Programmers don't have the ability or the right to modify them to do what they want. This has always been one of the biggest selling points to the high-end marketplace that knows how to program.

In fact, free source software is not dirt cheap either. Anyone who's been around the open software community for a time realizes that you end up having to pay something for the lunch. Keeping some costs hidden from the consumer isn't new, and it still hasn't gone away in the free software world. The costs may not be much and they may be a much better deal than the proprietary marketplace, but the software still costs something.

The simplest cost is time. Free software is often not as polished as many commercial products. If you want to use many of the tools, you must study manuals and learn to think like a programmer. Some manuals are quite nice, but many are cursory. This may change as the free software movement aims to dominate the desktop, but the manuals and help aren't as polished as the solutions coming out of Microsoft. Of course, one free software devotee told me by way of apology, "Have you actually tried using Microsoft's manuals or help? They suck, too."

Even when it is polished, free source software requires time to use. The more options that are available, the more time it takes to configure the software. Free source gives tons of options.
The lack of polish isn't usually a problem for programmers, and it's often not an extra cost either. Programmers often need to learn a system before they find a way to revise and extend it to do what their boss wants it to do. Learning the guts of a free software package isn't much of an extra cost because they would be just trying to learn the guts of a Microsoft product instead. Plus, the source code makes the process easier.

Still, most users including the best programmers end up paying a company like Red Hat, Caldera, or a group like OpenBSD to do some of the basic research in building a Linux system. All of the distribution companies charge for a copy of their software and throw in some support. While the software is technically free, you pay for help to get it to work.

If the free source code is protected by the GNU General Public License, then you end up paying again when you're forced to include your changes with the software you ship. Bundling things up, setting up a server, writing documentation, and answering users' questions take time. Sure, it may be fair, good, and nice to give your additions back to the community, but it can be more of a problem for some companies. Let's say you have to modify a database to handle some proprietary process, like a weird way to make a chemical or manufacture a strange widget. Contributing your source code back into the public domain may reveal something to a competitor. Most companies won't have this problem, but being forced to redistribute code always has costs.

Of course, the cost of this is debatable. Tivo, for instance, is a company that makes a set-top box for recording television content on an internal hard disk. The average user just sees a fancy, easy-to-use front end, but underneath, the entire system runs on the Linux operating system. Tivo released a copy of the stripped-down version of Linux it ships on its machines on its website, fulfilling its obligation to the GNU GPL. The only problem I've discovered is that the web page (www.tivo.com/linux/) is not particularly easy to find from the home page. If I hadn't known it was there, I wouldn't have found it.
Of course, companies that adopt free source software also end up paying in one way or another because they need to hire programmers to keep the software running. This isn't necessarily an extra cost because they would have hired Microsoft experts anyway. Some argue that the free source software is easier to maintain and thus cheaper to use, but these are difficult arguments to settle.

In each of these ways, the free software community is giving away something to spark interest and then finding a way to make up the cost later. Some in the free software community sell support and others get jobs. Others give back their extensions and bug fixes. A running business is a working ecology where enough gets reinvested to pay for the next generation of development. The free source world isn't a virtual single corporation like the phone company or the cable business, but it can be thought of in that way. Therefore, the free software isn't much different from the free toasters at the banks, the free lollipops at the barber's, or the free drugs from the neighborhood pusher.

If you want to think bigger, it may be better to see the free software world as closer to the great socialized resources like the ocean, the freeway system, or the general utility infrastructure. These treat everyone equally and provide a common basis for travel and commerce.

Of course, that's the most cynical way that free software is no different from many of the other industries. There are other ways that the free source vision is just a return to the way that things used to be before the software industry mucked them up. The problem is that a mixture of licensing, copyright, and patent laws have given the software industry more ways to control their product than virtually any other industry. The free source movement is more a reaction against these controls than a brave new experiment.