Amazing Free Software and WWIPAS

2011-01-22 16:04:24 by chort

A few days ago I was using a free DNS monitoring utility called dnstop. I had found a few bugs while trying to build and run it on OpenBSD. I knew one of the authors was active on public mailing lists, so I e-mailed him to report the bugs. To my surprise and delight, he responded quickly and began investigating.

When he was unable to setup a test environment to mimic mine in a timely manner, he asked if he could login to one of my systems to verify the behavior. I gave him access to a virtual machine and a day later, after several e-mail exchanges, all my reported problems were fixed and a new version of the software was available for download. Since the software itself was free, but the maintainer had gone to considerable trouble to fix my bugs in a very responsive manner, I offered him the continuing use of the shell account as payment.

A few days later I was downloading an update to TinyUmbrella and noticed a "Donate" button on the website. I thought about how much potential hassle that utility saves me and decided to donate. It only took a minute to contribute a few dollars to the project through PayPal. These two experiences prompted me to muse on the amazing value that authors of free software deliver, and what proper compensation is. This lead me to create the "WWIPAS" rule. What on Earth is that? I'm so glad you asked, read on...

Nearly everyone on the Internet uses free software daily. Some of it comes from big companies or organizations who use the software as a vehicle to drive revenue, such as Chrome from Google. A great number of free programs are developed by one person, or a handful of people, in their free time, often for nothing more than the satisfaction of writing it. For much of this software, the quality is dubious. On the other hand, there are a surprising number of volunteer projects that offer compelling alternatives to commercial software (or solve problems that no commercial software does).

Examples of really useful free software abound, from applications like the original Ethereal (now Wireshark), OpenSSH, VLC, and Adium, to entire operating systems, such as OpenBSD. When I use such software I marvel at how well it works and how much time/effort/money it saves me.

I sometimes find myself wishing I had a way to give back, but being a lazy human I don't tend to be very motivated to expend a lot of effort figuring out what I could do. Often these projects advocate helping to review code, submit patches, write documentation, etc but that's beyond the skills and (more importantly) motivation of many users. Usually there is a way to donate money to the project, although not necessarily obvious and often not on the same page that you download the software from.

What's the difference between the TinyUmbrella project, and most of the other free software out there? The ease to contribute, and the lack of any guilt-tripping or hassle about contributing. I think if every free software website had a Donate button next to the download link, without any other message, they'd be surprised at how many people take the minute to donate a few dollars.

That brings me to "WWIPAS." I was contemplating how much I should donate and to put it into context I asked myself "What Would I Pay for this if it was in the App Store?" The answer was instantly clear.

I think the donation model is more exciting than the app store model, because the barrier to entry is lower, but also because loyal users will probably donate a lot more than $0.99 drive-by downloaders. If your primary interest as a developer is putting out software that is useful to people and satisfying to write, I have to think that you'd rather have a small group of active & engaged users, willing to donate $5 each, than a hoard of ninety-nine centers who download and run your app once, without contributing feedback.

Takeaway thoughts
  * Developers: Take the time to put a PayPal button next to your download link.
  * Downloaders: Take the time to contribute what you'd pay if it was an app store.

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