To Open Source or Not To Open Source

I’ve been trying to wrestle the code for my graphical programming project into some kind of releasable form. This brings up the obvious question: in what form do I want to release this? Do I want to release it open source or closed source? Is there any way I can make money off it? Would it compromise the quality of the program to keep it closed source?

There are two basic strategies, and many permutations of each. On the one hand, I could open source it and try to build a community; on the other hand, I could keep it closed and try to do something like a startup.

To come to any kind of reasonable answer to this question, I need to first determine my priorities in writing this software.

Goals

I have five main goals (in order): to learn, to make something worth using, to make something that people use, to advance my career, and to make money.

I’ve started many projects in the past, and I’ve made significant progress on many, but I’ve never tried to turn them into something releasable. This is because my primary goal has always been to learn to be a better programmer. I’m a student, so this is my time to learn as much as possible before I’m thrown into the world of needing to make money. This is my time to dream, and my time to learn. Thus, my first priority is to learn.

My second priority is to make something worth using. That is, I want to make something that I and others would want to use. Thus, in the context of this project, I want to make a program that makes programmers more productive. I believe that if programmers can be made more productive, then not only can problems be solved faster, but problems that were previously prohibitively hard can be solved. Thus, I don’t want to do anything to compromise the power and usefulness of my program.

My third priority is to make something that people use. This is distinct from the above in that this is not measured by how useful this program would be to people if they used it; rather, it is measured by how useful this program is to people since they use it. Thus, I would like for this program to be available to as many people as possible with as little barrier to adoption as possible.

My fourth priority is to advance my career. This is pretty self-explanatory, and it could be accomplished in several different ways. Indeed, the learning I accomplish will be invaluable here.

My fifth priority is to make money. Aside from all the normal benefits of money, if this could turn into something that actually pays me, then I could devote more time and effort to it. If this doesn’t happen, then this will remain a side project while I either get a day job, an internship, or do a startup. At any rate, this project will suffer if I can’t find a way to monetize it.

Ways to Accomplish Said Goals

Learning

Whichever way I release this, I’ll learn a tremendous amount. Part of the learning will be about software projects in general, and some will be about whatever method I choose to release the project. At any rate, there probably won’t be enough distinction here to make a difference in my choice.

Something Worth Using

For making something worth using, the most important distinction is probably going to be between open and closed source. There are two issues at work here.

The architecture of the program is such that nearly every aspect is extensible without too much difficulty. Thus, users should be able to add and remove visualizations, key commands, and even language backends by just dropping the code into particular folders. Additionally, the actual program itself exposes a Racket interpreter that evals in the environment of the program. Thus, this should be eminently hackable. That makes it much more valuable to users. I’m not sure if this sort of open architecture would be possible in a closed source model. It seems like it would compromise this aspect of the system.

The other issue is that this project is too big to solve myself. I’m going to need other people to work on it with me. In an open source model, this means other open source programmers, and in a closed source money-making model, this means employees (and maybe a cofounder or two…). Both of these approaches carry risks. If the open source project does not gain momentum, then there may not be enough developers complete the project. If the closed source company does not earn enough money, then there will not be enough money to hire developers. At any rate, my focus here will be to create a program that is minimally complete and useful (by which I mean something that is complete enough to be useful) and then start iterating and improving. Then, more developers will mean faster improvement, and a lack of developers will mean slower improvement rather than outright failure.

Something People Use

For people to use a piece of software, it needs to (1) be worth using (above), and (2) have low barriers to adoption. I’ve attempted to design the program in such a way that it will be familiar to at least a certain subset of programmers. It is possible to write pure Racket in it (and I’m in the middle of making the process for this smoother), which will be familiar to Racket programmers (and Lisp programmers in general) and allow the use of the usual text tools. If you need to ssh into somewhere and edit code, vim will work just fine. Speaking of vim, many of the keyboard shortcuts are vim-inspired, such as h,j,k,l,i,d,p,q,@,:. If you prefer emacs-style shortcuts, you’ll be able to change them without too much trouble. Incidentally, I think the environment will be more familiar to people who use text tools than graphical tools.

In releasing the program, though, people will likely use the program significantly more if it is free, or if it at least has a free version. Obviously, being completely free is better than having a “community version”, but even that’s better than a purely proprietary program.

Advance My Career

Obviously, if this turns into a multi-billion dollar company, then I think my career will be fine. Assuming it doesn’t, then, this has a couple of ways that it can advance my career.

If this becomes a startup, then, even if it fails, I’ll have gained a lot of valuable experience, which could help my career in three potential directions: (1) this could be something I could put on my job application to a good company, so maybe I get a better job; (2) the experience might be able to land me a good job at a startup; (3) the experience would be invaluable were I to do another startup.

I wonder, though, how much an open source project might help with those same three things. On a job application to either a big company or a startup, I could point potential employers to this project, and they could look through the code, and, hopefully, they could see how I worked with other developers. This would highlight my love for programming even without a direct path to monetization. The experience would also be useful in doing a startup since I would be working on a project with actual users and whatnot. It would not be as useful as actually doing a startup would, but it also wouldn’t be as much of a risk and time investment.

Make Money

This one is pretty heavily weighted to one side. I don’t know of any good way to make money off of an open source project of this type. I could ask for donations, but unless this becomes huge that’s not likely to be a sustainable source of income. Some have suggested Kickstarter, and that might be a good idea, but I’m not sure how I would make a Kickstarter campaign work for this. Maybe I’m just not familiar with the Kickstarter model.

If anyone has any ideas on how to monetize this, particularly in an open source manner, I’d love to hear them.

In Which the Author Does Not Come To a Conclusion

So, that’s where I’m at. I’m leaning toward open sourcing, but I’m still not completely convinced. The crux of the issue seems to be that closed source would compromise the quality of the program, and I don’t think I’m willing to do that.

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4 thoughts on “To Open Source or Not To Open Source

  1. The conundrum between opensource and monetization is a tipping point between two ways of seeing the world. I would argue that opensource has a long term perspective, where making money off it is short term. And they are not either or. You can have both.

    The world is very big, and the amount of people willing to go through the process of figuring out your code base to compile themselves, or to add a feature is very small in comparison. Now, if you offer a service to those around you, in your community, you tell them here I made this and it will help you with this problem you are having. They try it out, perhaps they like it, perhaps it becomes an important part of how they do things. They will probably run into a situation where they’d like to modify or add functionality. This is where you start talking money/trade. You know the code better, thus you are more adapted at doing the task they need. Hence they’ll probably be willing to pay you for developing that feature they need. Or they’ll employ someone to do it for them, which means more people hacking on your project and more code commits come in from the wild.

    If you go the closed source route, this scenario looks very similar from your point of view. The customer will still ask you to code something for them. Now it will just be you and who you employ that can do this. The main difference is its all on you.

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