03 April, 2020

Rant of the day: well, at least Microsoft is making loads of money...

Sadly, many if not most of our schools today are suddenly pumping lots of extra money into Microsoft, Zoom and other proprietary software companies, because they need online collaboration. We all know there are many alternatives to giving their students' data away to foreign companies but most don't bother. It is annoying, there is always budget for Microsoft, but not for proper, local, privacy-protecting open source solutions, even if those are better. Why is that?

Reputation, I'm convinced, is the main reason for that.

We teach them the wrong thing

Unfortunately, a lot of people try to convince schools, governments, charitable organizations and even companies to not pay anything at all. They are promoting open source solutions as an alternative that is cheaper or free, which just makes it look inferior to management. They are not telling organizations to pay local and open source product companies instead of Microsoft.

Open source/Free Software advocates hammer on "but it is free"! And when they do, THEY probably think of Freedom. But the person they talk to just thinks "cheap and bad", no matter how you try to explain freedom. Nobody gets that, really, even if they nod friendly while thinking what a silly, idealistic nerd you are. Been there, done that.

I love the enthusiasm, yes, but in the end it is not helpful: it presents open source as a crappy but cheaper alternative without any real support. Well, there are a few overloaded volunteer enthusiasts who might do a great job for a volunteer but can't compete with a bunch of full time paid people at Microsoft. So the schools and governments and companies will simply use those 'free' (as in cheap and crappy) services as a stop-gap and then beg their bosses for budget to be able to pay a "proper" Microsoft service. There goes more public money in NOT public code.

We need to stop teaching companies that open source is a crappy, cheaper alternative to proper, paid alternatives from big American companies and instead tell them that they can pay for an open source solution that has real good support, no vendor lock-in, doesn't leak your data, protects your privacy and is actually better in many other ways. That way open source companies can actually hire people to make products better instead of just doing consulting one customer at a time.

And yes, some companies and some business areas have figured this out - Red Hat and SUSE are obvious examples, and projects like OpenStack have lots of paid people involved. But lots of other companies, from Bareos (backup) to Kolab (groupware) have struggled for years if not decades to build a product, instead getting sucked into consulting.

It doesn't work that way

I have seen loads of open source product companies go bankrupt or just give up and become consulting firms because their customers simply expected everything for free and to only pay a bit for consulting. Lots of open source people work at or set up their own consulting firms, occasionally even contributing a patch to upstream - but not building a product. Not that they don't want to, but they quickly find out that working your ass off for a maybe decent hourly rate does not leave you time to actually work on the thing you wanted to improve in the first place.

Indeed, you can't build a good end user product that way. Frank and myself put together a talk about this recently:

I have also recently written an article about this entire thing, explaining why of all the business models around open source, only subscriptions can lead to a sustainable business that actually builds a great product. Will hopefully soon be on opensource.com.

Yeah but volunteers...

Are fundamental to open source, yes, no doubt. At Nextcloud we could not have build what we did without lots of volunteers, heck, nearly everybody at Nextcloud was a volunteer at some point. And yes, all code we write is AGPL, and that, too is important. I am NOT arguing against that, not in the least.

What I say is:
  • You can't build a great product without paid developers*
  • You can't build a great product on consulting and only getting paid for setting it up/hosting
But let me then also add:
  • You can build a better product collaboratively
  • And the (A)GPL are the best licenses to do that

I'm sure there are exceptions to those rules, yes. But compare a great product like Krita, see how its developers struggle every day to be able to pay the bills of just a few full-time volunteers. Do you know how they are currently paying most of them? Last time I spoke to Boudewijn, the reality was sad: the Microsoft App store. Yup. How many does Adobe manage to pay to work on its products? Why should our ambition not be to have as many people working on Krita? Of course it should be. And yes, keep it open source. Is that doable?

Of course it is. Well, maybe not Adobe levels, but we can absolutely do better.

Missed opportunities

I said this was a rant, so I do have to complain a bit. My biggest regret is that KDE failed to catch up during the netbook period (around 2005). I believe that it is in no small part because we failed to work with businesses. Idealism can be super helpful and can also totally keep you irrelevant.

KDE is, lately, working more with companies, trying to build up more business around its product. GNOME has been far better at that for a far longer time, by the way. It is hard, and companies like Kolab, struggling for the last ~20 years to make things work, have shown that. Just being a for-profit obviously doesn't solve all problems. Idealism and hard work are not enough to make a business work. But we can do better, and Nextcloud is an example that shows we can. Now not all things are freaking awesome at Nextcloud, really - we work our a**** off and it is hard. We put on our best face in public but sometimes I just want to bang my head on and in the wall...

Still, see the video, read the blog hopefully soon on opensource.com - there are ways.

Thoughts welcome.

* let me qualify that statement. You can do it without paid developers in a small project, I dunno, grep or ls or the awesome simplescreenrecorder and tools like that. With those there is a risk of the apps going unmaintained and new ones popping up all the time - look at music players in the KDE community. I'd rather see one well maintained than new ones pop up with all their different flaws, but I totally get that for a volunteer it is often easier and more fun to start fresh. In either case, once you start building something huge, it gets pretty hard without long term dedicated resources. Note that it can be donations-run (like Krita and many others), with a charitable organization. I do think it is about more than 'just' the resources. If somebody 'just' sponsored 25 people to work full-time on Nextcloud, the end result would be different than the situation today. The need to deliver something that makes customers happy (which means focus on details, scalability etc!) and pressure to do things you wouldn't want to do in your free time (developer documentation...) make a big difference.

In any case, I really don't think projects like LibreOffice, Firefox, Nextcloud, KDE or GNOME and the Linux kernel itself would be where they are today without people paid to work on them.


  1. Steven ArmstrongFriday, 03 April, 2020

    It's a very sad and very true story you're telling here.

    I partly disagree on the reasons why this happens.
    e.g. at my kids school, the decisions are made by some central cantonal IT department. The people working there just don't know better. They use what they know. That's just like 20 years the people building whole brittle applications on top of MS Excel just because they didn't know that MS Access even existed.

    Guess what the school is pushing on our poor kids now: MS Teams :-/
    Guess what they are pushing on us at work: MS Teams :-/
    It's hopeless :-(

  2. While I completely agree that the current developments are sad, I don't think it's as easy as you make it sound. Actually, I think we're mostly past what you describe, at least in the areas I'm in contact with. People know that free software can be good, and they also know that open source software will have costs. I rather see discussions about perceived "professionalism". But there are also other aspects.
    Regarding your specific example: strangely enough, from an information security perspective, its often easier to introduce things like Office 365 or Teams than smaller or even selfhosted solutions. Just one example: Microsoft has all kinds of certificates, ISO 27001, ISO 27018, TISAX, HIPAA, whatever you like. They also lead you through the necessary paperwork or precautions with detailed documentation and templates. Same with GDPR, etc. Also, there is a mostly very extensive enduser documentation that you can just refer to (which for example wasn't really a strength of Owncloud in the beginning, even until version 12 or so).

  3. "You can't build a great product without paid developers"
    This very statement relieves me of any further comment, you shouldn't be part of open source community, if you don´t believe in what has made it great.


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