Birds, Speech, or Beer: The Dilemma of Free Software

Should software be free as in birds? free as in beer? or free as in speech?  I don’t think anyone has the right answer aside from secretly straddling the gray zone between, "piracy is illegal" and "it should all be free".

Daniel Jalkut had an interesting post on the topic of free software.  It’s a major dilemma for independent software developers who solely depend on software sales for their income.  The mac community is famous for its support of third-party/indie developers.

It sucks to try eking out a living in this day and age of rampant piracy of music and videos.  I think there is a great psychological divide between paying for intangibles such as software.  When you think about it, it’s a bit absurd how people will jump through fire hoops just to skimp on a $5 piece of shareware while thinking nothing of spending $5 or so on a Big Mac with a side order of fries and a coke but would rather use a far inferior free version of software that they use everyday.

Desktop applications have it tough.  People with the best chances of succeeding are those that build excellent products, first to market (or dominant share), good customer service and offer something unique.  That’s no different from any other business but third-party developers have to compete with open source projects and more importantly with large enterprises starting with the manufacturer of the operating system (and you know they always throw in a cartload of free apps as part of the system).

At the same time, little purchases of $15 – $40 apps eventually add up to quite a sum so the reluctance to pay is understandable.  The problem with perceived expensiveness of such shareware to me comes from the fact that there’s little to distinguish them from web apps, open source apps, or utilities bundled with the computer since we’re essentially looking at the same thing.  I think our brains are designed to mainly attach a sense of possession to physical objects or intellectual property of our own creation, rather than something like software.  The competition from web apps is also tricky because desktop apps don’t have the same advertising monetization options as web apps. 

As a Pukka owner I can see why Leo would want Pukka to be free.  It’s a small app, it uses a freely available web api to a very free site, many free alternatives (such as the Firefox extension I use away from macs) and is rarely the main focus of your daily activity (unless you’re a really hardcore del.icio.us user).  However, that doesn’t do justice to the effort put in by the developer in creating the app, support (he really does a great job answering customers), not to mention how much time you’ll save using it or adding value to del.icio.us itself.  I wouldn’t go anywhere near del.icio.us on the mac if it wasn’t for pukka.

At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself long and hard why you wouldn’t hesitate to drop $10 on a piece of software while you could easily spend that much on a daily basis for food and other stuff (including a lot of junk you don’t need).

Red Sweater Blog – It Should Be Free