Menu Home End users Hacking Humour Interviews Opinons Reviews All articles Issues Books
Free Software magazine
Wouter Verhelst [opinions]

Free software may kill some software firms. So what? [advocacy] [economics]

Some people who advocate against free software claim that it's bad for the economy and not sustainable in the long term, because the lack of direct revenue on developing free software makes it harder to make money out of developing such software. If generating direct revenue out of software development is not possible, they claim, then less people will be inclined to write software professionally. In turn, this will mean that end-users will have less high-quality software available. Is that really true? Let's find out.

Revenue, and money as a motivator

First of all, the statement that free software generates less direct revenue is probably true. Obviously, by giving your software away at no cost, it's not as easy to make a buck as it is when you charge people for using and copying your software. And it is indeed true that money can motivate people to do interesting things.

But this is only true to a certain extent—if the employee wages and other costs for the extra time and effort required to fix one particular bug in a piece of software will cost a developer a multitude of the extra revenue generated by fixing this particular bug, then money suddenly is no longer a motivator. Obviously, the lack of profit won't mean that the bug will not get fixed at all—there can be other things to motivate a developer apart from money. However, other motivational factors, such as making a name and improving one's image, exist for free software developers as well, so it's not really an argument against free software.

Additionally, of course, the fact that it's easier to generate revenue with proprietary software doesn't make it impossible to do the same with free software; examples can be found when looking at companies like IBM, Sun, and Red Hat, who do get some revenue from free software (although none of them provide free software exclusively).

Quantity and quality

Another argument may be that because of the more convoluted business practices required to do business with free software, there will be less software developing firms that create free software; and that, as a result, there will be less software available.

No doubt, this is also true. But quantity does not equal quality; when I last went to a shop where there was computer hardware to be had, I was surprised to see a box with the game of "mahjongg"—a game which is an almost ubiquitous part of every Linux desktop since quite a few years—to be on offer for the price of €29.99. When browsing sites such as or that specialize in shareware and other proprietary downloads, I am often appalled by the sheer volume of crap which is available on such sites—not to mention the fact that there are often many competing programs available that do exactly the same thing, but are written by different companies. Obviously, these programs are almost never able to talk to each other, or to share each other's data. Compare to the free software world, where most major and well-known competitors, such as GNOME vs KDE, are actively working together to make interoperability as easy as possible, often at the cost of many hours of extra development. On top of that, it seems to me that many of these competing proprietary programs on tucows or exist mainly because some developer was not entirely happy with an already existing piece of proprietary software, and decided to write his/her own, better, replacement. In the free software world, said developer would simply provide a patch.

In short, I am not convinced that the availability of more proprietary software is necessarily good for the end-user; on the contrary.

Economic problems for the developer

Obviously, if you read, you most likely already know the above. And if you've been doing any advocacy yourself, you probably know the answers, too. But what's been stopping me a lot in the past is the argument that since it's not as easy to make revenue from free software, the rise of free software will be detrimental for the economy as a whole, wherein a lot of software development companies will suffer. But when I went to do some Christmas shopping a few weeks ago, I saw something that gave me a revelation.

In my home town of Ekeren, there is a shop called "Foto & Video Dali" which has existed for as long as I can remember. This shop, as the name may suggest, specializes in everything related to photography and related equipment: photo and video cameras, picture frames, tripods, lenses, but also film, and development of analog pictures.

The last bit, photo development, is where most of their revenue comes from. Or, well, it was where most of there revenue came from. In this digital age, where everyone buys digital cameras and even digital SLR cameras are starting to become affordable, obviously a shop that mainly lives off of picture development can no longer survive. As a result, Foto & Video Dali now needs to either find some other source of revenue, or will eventually close down.

And the first is what they're now doing; in addition to the TV sets and audio equipment they've been selling since a few years—not really photo equipment but still slightly related—they now also started selling small kitchen appliances: mixers, waffle irons, and the like. In other words, they've started to diversify, and are moving away from being a photo shop to being a shop dedicated to general electrical equipment.

What does this have to do with free software, I hear you ask? Simple. If photo shops can adapt to a changing economic situation, then so can proprietary software development firms. If nobody cares about the fact that digital photo equipment is detrimental to some people's businesses—because, after all, digital photo equipment is good for the end user—then nobody should care about the fact that free software is detrimental to some other people's businesses.


It is obvious to anyone that free software is gaining ground everywhere, and that this is an evolution which will only continue in the future. It is just as obvious that this evolution will be a problem to people who have high stakes in proprietary software. But, even if that is true, that's not something I care about much.

Or, in other words: free software may kill some software firms. So what?


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.