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Ask HN: Anyone else regret making free software?
15 points by paulryanrogers on July 27, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 21 comments
Recently I've published a few modest plug-in's to popular software as commercial products, and a part of me wants to give such minor work away. Yet my past experiences producing freeware and the macro effects on labor make me reluctant. After all, I do value my time and producing even 'simple' functionality can consume a lot of it.

Granted, my participation in freeware was a niche game-mod from years ago; circa ~2001. So donation wasn't as common as it appears today. Also, while I understand 'free' as a marketing technique, it seems to be conditioning potential buyers to expect pricing below costs. This can't be good for those trying to make it by selling their work.

On the other hand I've certainly benefited from free and open software produced by others. There have even been a few occasions where I've donated small amounts. Though, looking at widely used projects like DosBox my guess is contributors (or those of similar projects) would have been compensated a lot more if they were not free. Or at least gotten more funding considering how Steam and GOG have benefited.

Am I alone in feeling some regret making freeware? Anyone else feel similarly conflicted in charging for their work?




The single biggest mistake I made when I was an independent software developer was making my flagship product available for free.

Of course when I first released the application I had no idea it would become a significant part of many people's lives and would come to occupy all of mine. I also had a job at the time, and like you I felt conflicted about charging for my work.

The application was Journler, an information management application for the Mac desktop circa 2006-2010, and I eked out a living on a "donationware" model for some time.

Eventually the scope of the project became so large that I needed extra help, but I didn't have the income to hire help. I needed to start charging to be able to hire help, but in order to release a new version of the software with a paid model while continuing to manage customer support, I needed to hire help. I fell into a vicious circle, and the project collapsed. I open sourced it, apologized to the user community, and moved on to contract work.

You cannot anticipate what will happen with the software projects you release into the wild. But as developers often underestimate how long it takes to complete a project, I'd speculate we also underestimate how much of ourselves we'll have to commit to a project that becomes even modestly successful.

Charge from the beginning and put yourself into a position where you can hire help if it should come to that.


In 2015 I would suggest open up a patreon page (or similar service) and define how much money is required for continued work. After that its the users choice to pay the salary or not, and as a developer you can see if there was enough interest in the product to support its development.

Donationware or paid version schemes can also work in some cases, but in my view there is a bit of an mental distance between a person paying and the product being supported for further development. It only seems to work in the exceptional massive projects and then a large portion of donations often seems to be from other companies rather than private citizens.


I see this sentiment quite often, and it's sad because it's so unnecessary.

The "new version" that you agonized so long over didn't need to be anything other than the current version, optionally modified to check serial numbers, but realistically all you needed to do was remove the free download link from the website and replace it with the simplest payment flow that could possibly work, with the download link living at the end.

Version 2.0.

Added: price.

[end of release notes]


The only free (gratis) software I regret releasing is for iOS. A massive numbers of developers have done the same, adding huge value to the iOS platform. Apple socks away billions while developers get nothing or very little. Apple set up their ecosystem as a slippery slope that shoved everyone into the mud very quickly. That's one of the big reasons for which we have zero interest in the watch. Apple needs a ton of free apps to give it value.


> Though, looking at widely used projects like DosBox my guess is contributors (or those of similar projects) would have been compensated a lot more if they were not free. Or at least gotten more funding considering how Steam and GOG have benefited.

I think you may have it a bit backwards. Old applications are easy to run and popular, because DosBox exists. If it was a paid app, maybe GOG wouldn't be known at all. Or maybe the prices would be much higher than they are now.

If you regret releasing free software, that's your right of course. But unless you released something very similar in the same environment and got paid real money for it (not donated - charged and received), I don't think you can make a valid prediction of what would happen in a non-free scenario.


> Old applications are easy to run and popular, because DosBox exists.

Actually I think nostalgia makes old stuff popular even when it is challenging to do. I've met people into 1840's-style iron working despite the challenge; and certainly not because it's the most optimal way to produce the desired product.

> If it was a paid app, maybe GOG wouldn't be known at all. Or maybe the prices would be much higher than they are now.

Perhaps GOG would not exist, but Nintendo has been selling repackaged editions of their old software for a long time now. And maybe GOG and Steam prices should be slightly higher to compensate those doing the ports. If so then some ports may have been better quality.


I don't understand how the first part is connected to the free/regret post, sorry.

Nintendo, sure, releases them for the platform they control completely. Outside of that platform, there's a lot of free emulators (not a single one paid on http://emulator-zone.com/doc.php/nes/)


I have been writing ToDoList (http://www.codeproject.com/Articles/5371/ToDoList-An-effecti...) as freeware for nearly 12 years and never regretted a minute. I have a day job and write ToDoList purely for fun/joy. A Thriving community has grown up around it, it has provoked a number of people to develop related tools and has kept the passion alive when my day job (also programming) sometimes sucked.


Interesting perspective, thanks for taking the time to share. I'd imagine that most people who do open source are in a similar situation. That is, expenses already paid. Yet such efforts also appear to undermine the value of your profession as a whole.

Consider the poor-yet-educated developer (maybe strait out of college or living in the 3rd world) with a great idea for a to-do application like yours. He pours precious time and effort into his work. Then after establishing his product someone with time to spare starts giving away a free alternative. The poor developer cannot compete as more and more of his consumers, and potential customers, opt for the free project.

Quality and execution are the arguments I often read in response to such an argument. Yet the sacrifice of the poor developer just to get basic functionality are greater than those of us who already have a day job. While I love to share, create, and avoid reinventing the wheel; I'd also like others to enjoy at least some of the career and benefits I've been blessed with.


But if no one does create that app then my app never gets written... So it's not really a working argument.

And if I charge for it and no one buys it, what then, should I give up or make it open-source?

What if that 'person' can use my software for free and in doing so save some money so that they can write the software they want to?


> But if no one does create that app then my app never gets written

You could write it and release it at a price equivalent to your time and effort. You could even include the source for personal modification and offer free updates to anyone who contributes back to the project. Or write it yourself and keep it private.

> And if I charge for it and no one buys it, what then, should I give up or make it open-source?

Pricing is an art, so I imagine some experimentation is in order. I've begun doing so myself. Making it open source, as in no cost to redistribute, would still devalue programming as a paid profession; even if it's hard to see at the micro level.

> What if that 'person' can use my software for free and in doing so save some money so that they can write the software they want to?

Good counter-point. Some producers do benefit indirectly as they are also consumers of tools. Yet if they ultimately find it harder to get paying work--because the market as a whole expects software below cost--then the net effect looks negative to me.


Add-ons, mods and other freebies are often about solving a problem, learning something new or simply contributing to the community. I doubt you're alone in feeling regret about giving a thing away that you later see people pay for out of someone else, but it doesn't mean the work went to waste or that you somehow squandered the one chance you to contribute materially.


> ...it doesn't mean the work went to waste or that you somehow squandered the one chance you [had] to contribute materially.

While I did learn a lot through the process of contributing to free software, it's also time I could have spent making software that paid for itself. Still, it is good to be reminded of the positives. Thanks.


I've been working with open source software since before the term existed (it used to be called "free" before licensing was understood.) At this point, I think it is mostly a bad idea. First, the big users of most open source software are big Fortune 500 companies run by a bunch of billionaires - so why should they get software free? Second, I think that everyone should get at least a living wage for any work they do - so working for free really reflects an economic system that was set up to create winners and losers.

So now I would prefer to see more managed economies - less tolerance for the billionares, and less tolerance for a system where people must work for free to get the chance to get a good job.


it used to be called "free" before licensing was understood

This statement along with saying free software means "working for free" and that Fortune 500 companies being large adopters of free software isn't preferable, makes me strongly doubt you ever understood it in the first place.


You have a defective language. Try French, with logiciel libre et logiciel gratuit.

Free software (logiciel libre) is not software given for free, for USD0.00.

Free software (logiciel libre) is software that gives freedoms to the user:

- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

If creating software costs you dearly, then of course, you shall invoice your users for selling your software to them. Bug give them those freedoms! Sell free software. Don't give enslaving software for free (gratuitement).

As a user, I would not use freeware (logiciel gratuit). Freeware (logiciel gratuit) is enslaving; usually the source is even not available, so I cannot verify that freeware software (logiciel gratuit) doesn't do something evil in my back.

Notice that if you sell your logiciel libre under the GPL license, you have to give the sources of your logiciel libre to your paying _customer_, but not to anybody else. Of course, then your customer has the 4 freedoms described above, and he could further sell or give your software, along with the sources to somebody else. But this is work and it would involve charges, so he may choose not to do so.


> Of course, then your customer has the 4 freedoms described above, and he could further sell or give your software, along with the sources to somebody else. But this is work and it would involve charges, so he may choose not to do so.

With OpenSSL many apparently did use it and resell it without compensating upstream. Only after HeartBleed did that situation change. For a more GPL example I've noticed DosBox Turbo reuses both DosBox and another port's work in their sources. My guess is unmodified reselling may be happening with WooCommerce plug-in's at Woothemes-plugins.com and Wooextension.com.


But let us not forget how efficiently and immediately OpenSSL was able to be forked, precisely because it was free software.


Certainly that is a benefit for the consumer. But my regrets are because I am a producer. When others can use one's work to resell updated copies without compensation then I doubt one would feel motivated to keep working on it.


"free software" is not the same as "freeware", which by commonly accepted usage is almost always reffering to proprietary software that is distributed at no cost. The OP tends to implicitly conflate them by lumping them in together.


Perhaps they are different for some folks. In my experience most people consider both terms any software that is free to acquire, use, and distribute. Regardless, if wares are acquired and used without charge then the impact on producers and the price expectations of consumers is the same.




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