Show Me the Money

Show Me the Money

Article from Issue 198/2017
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How do you charge for something that is free? Just ask!

As the founder of a modestly successful crowdfunded venture, I applaud the team behind AppCenter, the pay-what-you-want app store for ElementaryOS that, at the time of this writing, has raised $9,570, comfortably meeting its funding target of $8,000.

The market system of incentives is fundamentally changed by Free Software, as the consumer doesn't pay, regardless of how much he or she values the work of the developers. If Canonical, for example, were to start charging for Ubuntu, any number of substitute distros could be installed free of charge in its place. It doesn't matter that Ubuntu is key to the financial success of such Internet behemoths as Amazon Web Services; the marginal cost of a replacement is £0, so the relationship between price and worth is broken.

Canonical can fight back by using Ubuntu to create a market for a new product: its support services. But Canonical can only do this because it's big enough to do so. Small distro developers can't alter the market, so if they want money, they need to ask for it.

That's exactly why so many previous attempts at app stores for Linux have failed. Nobody's going to pay for Free Software on the desktop in a purely capitalistic transaction (buy me a beer, and I'll tell you why classical economic theory is flawed because there's no such thing as "the free market"). But take out the transactional element and turn it into goodwill, into membership of a club, into feeling like you're doing the right thing; then it's just possible that the little guys have the edge over big players like Canonical.

ElementaryOS, for all its polish (and it is an extremely well-put-together desktop OS), is a small project. Its developers deserve recognition. The Linux community as a whole should be rooting for it, because the more it flourishes, the more consumers will look up from their shiny Apple devices and be tempted to try something new.

Lots of developers give you the chance to contribute something for their work. Whether it's on the AppCenter, on Patreon, or on one-off buttons called something like "Buy the creator a coffee." Good luck to them: If they can make a few quid without pressuring me with a hard sell, I'll be more inclined to give them my support than if they were making it impossible to use the software without handing over my credit card details. It's tricky, but the right balance is out there for those brave enough to look for it.

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