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Sun, 2006-Apr-02

Linux Australia Update Episode #16

As many of you will know, I participated in a telephone interview some weeks back for James Purser's Linux Australia podcast. With his permission, here is a transcript of of that interview. Any errors or inaccuracies are my own. If you would like to refer to the original interview please see James' podcasts page. Questions asked by James are prefixed with "JP". Other text is myself.

The major change that has occured in the project since this podcast is that Efficient Software has dropped the concept of a central clearing house for open source software development funding. We now encourage individual projects to follow an efficient software model by accepting funds directly from users. See the Efficient Software project page for more details about what Efficient Software is, and where it is going.

JP: Ok, getting right into our interview with Benjamin here he is explaining what Efficient Software is:

Well efficient software is a project idea that I have had for a few years but it has developed a lot since the AJ Market came online.

JP: Just before we go on, I'm sorry. For those who are listening who don't know what the AJ Market is, can you tell us what AJ has been doing there?

Anthony Towns is a Debian developer. He has opened up a market on his own website where you can submit money to him and it will drive (theoretically) the development he is doing in that week. So it is a motivating factor for him to get some money in his hands, and is also a way for the community to drive him into particular directions as to how he spends his time. He publicised that on his blog and on planet linux australia, so that spurred things along a bit. So this project is similar, a similar mindset. I would like to iron out some of the reasons why users would contribute and look forward a bit as to where we will be in ten years time or twenty years time when closed source software is possibly a less dominant force in the market.

So at the moment it is very little. It is a mailing list. It is an irc channel. We are in a phase of the project where we are just discussing things. We are talking about what this world will look like twenty years out from now.

JP: Ok, well let us in. What is this kind of world view you have got that is behind Efficient Software?

If we imagine a world where open source software has "won the battle", that it's freedom everywhere and everybody can get at the source code and free software is developed. You have to ask the question: Who is it developed by? We have pretty good answers to that at the moment. We have people who are employed by open source friendly companies. We have people who have a day job and they spend their weekends and free time doing software development for free software projects. They have the motivations and the itches to scratch to contribute. But there is a conflict, a fundamental conflict when you have people who are working part time, especially on software development. They have time and money in conflict. They need to earn money, they need to have a day job in order to have the free time to spend on open source. The idea is broadly that we want to be able to fund people as much as we can and we want to fund them as directly as we can potentially from the community itself. When you take out the closed software world a big segment of the actual day job marketplace disappears for software developers.

JP: Yeah. That would be say 80-90% of the employers of software developers, wouldn't it?

Yeah. So we can look forward and see this potential conflict approaching where open source adoption slows down because nobody is willing to give up their day job. They are afraid of contributing because they may want to keep their jobs. What I'm really looking to is how to solve that conflict between the time you want to be able to spend on open source and the money by aligning those two things. Being able to get a direct funding of the developers.

JP: Cool. So what would you be setting up with Efficient Software? What is the current sort of model you are looking at?

Well, I have a strawman and this is preliminary and this is mostly my thinking. I am eager to take on board comments and consider even radical alternatives to this. What I'm currently laying out is a kind of eBay-style website that essentially becomes a marketplace, a central clearing house for enhancements to open source software. The idea is that customers, or users, however you want to think of them... investors, because investment and contributing they are the same thing in open source really. If the customers will find particular enhancements they want, they will be modelled as bugs in a bugzilla database. They will have a definiate start and conclusion and close out and verification process assocated with them. The idea is that the community, and that could include individuals and businesses or whatever interests there are the support that particular project can contribute money to a pool that will be payed to the project once the bug is verified or once that release cycle is complete. So there is a clear motivation there to contribute, hopefully, to the project. You are going to get your bug fixed at a low cost. You can put in a small amount of money and hopefully other people will put in small amounts of money also, and it will build into a big enough sum to make it appetising to go and fix the bug. Then maybe the developer can still pay their bills that week. There is a motivation as well from the developer's side to go for the biggest paying bugs and to try and meet the market expectations of the software.

JP: Have you considered the other systems that we have currently got for paying open source developers, which is say Redhat's and any of the corporate Linuxes where you pay for support, or Sourceforge's donation system where you can go and actually donate to any of the projects?

I think that is a very interesting sort of case study. If you look at a business that is selling support, one of the interesting things I have found in open source development is that often the support you can get for a fee is not as good as you can get for free. It doesn't have the same kind of wide customer base that a genuine open source project has. In an open source world people contribute not only a bit of code, but they will also contribute a bit of time by helping other people out. The reason they do that is that they get a lot of support in response to that. They can put a small amount of investment in and get a great yeild off of that. Commercial support at the moment is good for making business feel very comfortable about their linux investments. You can buy a Redhat CD and install it on your machine and you have your support for that particular machine, and if you want ten machines you buy ten support agreements. It is very much the closed source software development model in that costs in developing the CD are returned after the CD is produced. They also have the support mechanisms in there which is a useful and still will probably still be an important part of the business, the economy of open source going forwards.

Sourceforge is another interesting one where they have opened it up for donations, and that has happened fairly recently. Over the last twelve months, I think. Any community member can contribute to a particular project through that they like. My fundmanental concern what that is there there is no real economic incentive to do that. There are two reasons I can think of economically to contribute to an open source project through that sort of model. One is that it you think it is on the ropes and you want to keep it ticking along so that the investments you have made already will continue to bear fruit as more people put contributions into that particular product. Also there is a sort of "feel good" factor. You might like the product and want to reward the developers. In that sort of situation it is very difficult to determine exactly how much you should actually put towards the project. It goes back to recouping costs after the development has taken place, and ideally we would like to be able to pay the developer as they develop the code rather than come along several weeks or months later and say "I like what you have done, here is a thousand bucks". I am interested in trying to find an economic basis for that relationship to exist between the customer and the producers of the software.

JP: As you mentioned before you have blogged a fair bit about Efficient Software. Including a discussion you had at HUMBUG at the last meeting. What has the response been like?

It has been very interesting. So far it has been fairly minimal, but at HUMBUG we had really good discussion about basically the prelimiary scoping of the exercise of the whole project. We got to talk through the issues of how you get from some other business model some greengrocer or a certain internet search engine and how you get that money feeding to an open source software developer to pay for their day job. We just started to map out the whole industry and work out where the money is coming from and how we can get as direct a flow of money to the developer and as most efficent flow as we can get that will reward the developer for meeting real customer expectations. We discussed a lot of other issues as well and I blogged about them and you can read that on http://planet.linux.au/ or my blog at http://soundadvice.id.au/. We have just gone through some preliminary scoping and we are still in very much a discussion phase about efficient software. What I put forward is a strawman, and it is not really intended to be the final model. I think there are some pros and cons which we should really work through and compare to other businesses in a much more detailed way.

JP: So if this were a software project you would really say you were in the Alpha stage of development?

Yeah, absolutely. It is all new. It is all fresh. I don't know if it will fly. I think there are reasons to believe it will succeed. I think there are economic reasons to think that open source software will always be more efficient and cost-effective than closed source software. Particularly due the forking capability of open source there is a very low barrier to entry. If I want to provide a whole new infrastructure for running project I can just take your source code and I can run with it. If I am more efficient, if I am better at it than you, then I will be the one who ends up at the end. Most of the time what happens is that projects collapse back because there isn't enough of a customer base to really draw from. That includes time and skills of developers, of people supporting other people who are using the product. Ultimately the Efficient Software goal is just to extend that so that money is another thing that your community can provide in an open source sort of way. As they have an itch they can provide either their time, their skills, or some portion of money. I think as we move to less technical arenas in open source... open source really started in operating systems and tools and things. It has expanded a long way from that. We are getting to things like Gnome which which is really meant for the average desktop user. The average desktop user doesn't necessarily have the time or the skills to really put forward to code development. I think there is an untapped supply of funding for developers who are willing to take on that relationship with that sort of community: A community which is less technical and is more interested in their own way of life and their own day jobs.

JP: Do you see Efficient Software being able to benefit the whole range of projects, from your single man developer to your Apache, Gnome, or Linux kernel?

That's really my picture of where this will go. I think there is a barrier as to where this can penetrate, but the barrier is really about whether the software is mass-market and whether it has has mass-appeal. Those are the same sorts of barriers as open source hits anyway. I think this will most benefit non-technical community bases or less-technical community bases and will probably have a lesser impact on things like the Linux kernel where no desktop user will have a specific bug they will want to address in the Linux kernel, necessarily. There may be some flow through. Say Gnome were taking on this model, and they were acquiring a reasonable funding base from their community which is a more non-technical community they may have a reason to reinvest in the Linux kernel itself. Whether that be reinvesting of developer time and resources, or whether that indeed went upstream as money. As we reach out to less technical fields you will see a more money-oriented open source develoment and as we move to more the tehnical areas then it will be people who have the time and skills and are pushing those time and skills upstream.

Benjamin