Why (most) medium sized free software projects are doomed (or, IBM said “no”)

It’s no secret that I love free software; you don’t decide to start a magazine about it and stick with it for years unpaid if you don’t. While making Free Software Magazine, I learned a lot about free software and its ecology. What I discovered was sometimes exciting, sometimes disheartening.

The world is blessed with hundreds of free software projects: from small (and priceless) utilities (like “ls”!), to complex, graphical programs (like Firefox, OOo and the GIMP). It’s like a huge ecosystem, where each piece of software has its place and meaning—and where Darwinian survival rules are applied mercilessly, especially towards the weaker species.

I’ve been in this industry for more than 10 years now, and learned how to identify free software projects.

There are projects that are new (less than 2 years); they are fresh, and exciting. They often try to do something innovative, or take an old idea and do it better. They start out with passion, and are fed by passion. More and more people become aware of those projects, the mailing lists—once deserted—become very active, and the web site’s bandwidth usage grows and grows (ever wondered why growing projects often change their hosting servers?).

There are also projects that “make it”. There aren’t many percentage-wise, but they are there. I am sure I don’t need to name them (but I will anyway: Snort (used in computer security), Firefox, even GNOME and KDE, Python, and so on). These projects have plenty of traffic and exposure, and gain the attention of those corporate users who rely on them. Which means, they can usually count on financial support by companies with real money or by their community.

There is a third class of unfortunate projects: the mid-sized ones. Those projects which are not “small” anymore—their user base is usually very big, the users’ demands grow exponentially, and they are undeniably successful. However, while these projects are big enough to require a lot of care (and time), they have not reached that critical size they need to reach in order to get massive exposure and, therefore, funding.

Who is to blame? Maybe, nobody is. I’m not aware of a lot of those projects myself! I certainly don’t expect corporate managers to surf the net looking for mid-sized projects that are in need of funding and support. Even when those managers are made aware of a specific project’s need, the problem is that it’s even hard for a company with serious money to even consider smaller venues or organise small sponsorships. Even if they did, how could they possibly decide on which projects actually deserve help? Why project “A” and not project “B”? Who is Mr. Manager to choose?

As a result, a lot of successful, mid-sized free software projects turn into abandon-ware. Their members end up arguing (stress does that), or they simply let go of the project. There isn’t enough of a fuss because the software’s users were many, yes, but not enough to create a “situation”.

Why am I writing this? Well, because this is exactly what Free Software Magazine is going through right now. We would love to pay our authors, ourselves, and have a prosperous magazine. We are now considered a very popular project (the number of subscribers we have—thirty thousand—speaks for itself); however, we are finding it very difficult to get the funding we need. Money is slowly coming in, advertisers are booking ads, but it’s not quite enough yet. If you want to know who has helped us, feel free to visit our sponsors page, by the way!

We are lucky because we don’t argue, we are determined enough to keep going until we break through this phase, and finally turn into a “big project”. We are also lucky because making Free Software Magazine is actually fun. However, being a mid-sized project has proven to be a very hard task, at least financially. While we remind ourselves how lucky we are for the sponsors we have received (and for some of them helping us has required substantial effort), we sometimes feel disappointed because of all of the companies we expected support from, and who simply haven’t listened (for whatever reason). We are also blessed by income from other ventures, which means that we don’t actually need Free Software Magazine to make money, but having extra jobs does mean that we don’t have as much time to dedicate to the project.

I’m writing this article after a non-answer from IBM: we asked them to help our project by providing much needed laptops (and yes, we tried selling them advertising space, but are still waiting for a reply...and it has been a while now). Let me assure you that we think highly of IBM: they have defended and helped Linux just so much. However, apparently our request never made it to the right person—or perhaps it made it, but that person could only deal with it if it was about a few hundred thousand dollars. We are not bitter—and yes, we still love IBM!—but... we are disappointed.

We’re not alone: there are thousands of projects out there in a very similar situation. I wondered if this can be changed somehow. Maybe creating a “mid-sized software project” association that would redistribute sponsorship money would work? Maybe. Or maybe not. The same problem would arise: who qualifies? Who deserves to be in it? Who gets the most money? Who is not going to argue about it? Maybe, this is why most mid-sized free software projects are doomed, and only a few lucky ones, with the right conditions (which luckily we seem to have), actually make it.

What do you think? (And I actually mean it: please leave your comments!)


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