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02/16/2004 Archived Entry: "Why buy free software?"

Why would someone pay for free software?

As someone who has, to date, bought five packaged copies of Linux and two updates*, perhaps I can shed some light on the question, and on the related question: what sense is there in a business model that involves selling something which can be downloaded for free on the 'Net?

1. Convenience. If you've never tried it, downloading a set of Linux CDs is a bit of a chore. (If, like me, you have only dial-up access, it's effectively impossible.) Why spend a few hours of your time assembling and burning CD-Rs when for $40 or so you can get a nice boxed set with more-durable manufactured CDs?

There's a new cottage industry in downloading and burning CD-Rs and selling them by mail order. Which might save a few dollars, but brings me to my next two points:

2. Documentation. Unlike downloads, a boxed set will generally come with a nice printed manual. When you're just trying to get started, this can be a godsend. (What good is on-line documentation when you're stuck trying to configure your modem for Internet access?) I still make reference to my old Red Hat 5.2 manual, which has a useful section on disk partitioning.

This has led to another Linux business model: sell the documentation, and give the software away. I have no fewer than eight Linux CDs that came bundled with books on Linux. Two of those books (Que's Using Caldera Open Linux, and Wiley's Red Hat Linux 8 Bible) have been especially useful over the years. Good Linux documentation is sometimes hard to find, and is well worth the price! I expect this model to flourish.

3. Support. When you buy a boxed set from a Linux distributor, you usually get a modest amount of telephone or email support. Again, when you're just trying to get started, this can be invaluable. (Currently we're experiencing a few stability problems with the latest Xandros release. Since we're paying customers, we can nag them about it and get help from their tech support staff.)

Another aspect of support is an update feature. Most of the commercial Linux vendors offer some kind of service to notify you of important or useful updates, and to download them and install them semi-automatically. Well worth the price, in both convenience and security.

4. Features. Regular readers of this blog will recall that the reason I switched to Xandros Linux is to avail myself of some of the custom features that they've added... like their file manager. Many Linux distros offer easy-to-use system configuration and management tools, and often these tools are only available to the paying customers.

The folks at Libranet have taken this in a different direction. They distribute the latest-but-one release for free, but to get their latest release (with the latest improvements) you need to pay. I think this business model might catch on as well.

5. Value for Value. Not a pragmatic argument, but a moral one: many people (myself included) truly believe in giving value for value received, and are uncomfortable being just "takers." In the open-source community you can "give back" in many ways -- and I may blog about that in the future -- but the simplest and most direct is to send a few dollars to those who have given you value.

This business model has actually existed for at least 25 years: even before the IBM PC, there was "shareware," which relied on the honor system for payment. Sure, some people use the software without paying, but enough of us did (and do) pay to make it worthwhile for many software authors.

6. Rational Self-Interest. I came to libertarianism through Objectivism, so this concept carries a lot of weight with me. The simple fact is, I receive tremendous benefits from the thousands of open-source authors, and the dozens of Linux distributors, that make Linux and Linux applications available. It is in my personal, unabashed, naked self-interest that these people continue development, support, and distribution. And I demand no altruism: I know that if they are not rewarded somehow for their efforts, their efforts will cease. So I'm happy to pay $40 here and $100 there for Linux software...it's a small price for a huge expected return. An investment, if you will; and in the soundest Objectivist tradition.

So there are six reasons, any one of which should be sufficient. Together they make a strong case that there is a viable business model for Linux. Actually there are many viable business models -- I've alluded to a few -- and I look forward to seeing what the free software market produces next.

- brad

* For the curious: Red Hat 5.2, Caldera OpenLinux 2.2, VectorLinux 4.0, Lindows 3.0, Xandros 1.0, Lindows 4.0, and Xandros 2.0. Not to mention purchased disks of FreeBSD 1.2 and 2.0, OpenBSD 2.4 and 3.0, and an old version of Slackware Linux.

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