iPad, app stores threaten open source applications

Open source is a response to software market failure.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, PC software was dominated by one company: Microsoft.

Rivals couldn’t successfully sell alternative applications in the face of Microsoft’s monopoly power. Start-ups could get neither market traction or access to capital to grow their businesses.

By doing away with prices and distributing online, open source undermines Microsoft’s marketing and bypassed normal channels.

But developers need to eat. Free doesn’t buy much food.

Today Microsoft is no longer dominant. And thanks to Apple’s iPhone app store, which now extends to the iPad, individuals or small teams of developers can easily enter the software market.

With other companies also offering app stores, we are about see a thousand flowers bloom.

There will be app store millionaires. But more importantly there will be many developers who can now use their skills to put bread on the table.

The bazaar now challenges the cathedral.

But with developers able to make a living from their art, they will have less time and even less motivation to work on open source projects.

Some will survive on idealism, but if a developer has a bright new idea tomorrow, do you think it will see the light as a giveaway or as a $0.99 app store download?

13 thoughts on “iPad, app stores threaten open source applications

  1. Not sure your argument follows. Yes, it’s great that app stores are making it easier for developers to sell to more people. But the majority of open source applications I use are for the PC – Linux, Firefox, Songbird, Notepad++, WinMerge, FilZip… (just off the top of my head), to say nothing of the open source libraries I use as a developer myself.
    The difference between mobile appstores and the desktop is that, as you say, mobile apps cost a dollar or two. It’s not really worth the customer attempting to find an alternative. But on the PC applications can cost hundreds of dollars so the open source alternative is worth the time.
    Will open source play a large part in the mobile market? Probably not, although who’s to say there won’t be a lot of libraries that developers share? But is open source going to die off? No.

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  2. @parsley72 I think the arrival of the iPad means appstores are breaking out of their mobile-only phase and will soon include desktop applications.

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  3. Yeah, i don’t think open source is going anywhere. It’s not as if the iphone/ipad lacks a web browser (which leads to projects like http://code.google.com/p/iui/). Nothing like a poor argument about something a lot of people believe in to get a conversation going though. cheers!

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  4. @Sigh.. You are 100% correct but, in the vast majority of cases, “free” *does* mean “as in $”. Very few open source companies are big revenue earners (when compared to their commercial counterparts) e.g. Red Hat (which I suspect might make more $ from selling OSS software than anybody else) generates only 1.27% of Microsoft’s annual revenue. To look at it another way, around 3.15pm on January 4th of each year Microsoft surpasses RH’s revenue for the entire year. Admittedly Microsoft have a much bigger suite of product and service offerings but RH’s revenue is still dwarfed by Microsoft’s server business unit alone.

    Bill’s point is that the AppStore model which, because it connects developers directly to paying customers, is likely to seriously disrupt the open source world as FLOSS dev’s find they can make money from their efforts rather than doing it for love and kudos.

    The IT world is a huge, ever-changing ecosystem and the AppStore model is just adding another model to the mix. Personally I don’t think AppStores will “kill” OSS but they’re certainly going to have a major impact. Having said that, the Microsoft’s of this world will also be affected and it’s going to be interesting to watch how it all plays out.

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  5. We could debate what “kills open source applications” means.

    I think a large number of projects will carry on, especially tools and plumbing, but there will definitely be fewer and fewer of those nifty little FOSS applications you can download from places like SourceForge.

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  6. @sigh Free may not mean zero $, but FOSS does not appear to be a viable business model. And by that I mean it doesn’t put much food on the table.

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  7. G’day Bill

    As long as there are “walled gardens” and quasi-monopolies, Open Source is safe. On one level, it’s for people who just want to get stuff done. On another level its ideal for large corporates to by-pass blockages. I’m talking about IBM and Sun (though we’ll see where Oracle takes it) and Hewlett Packard and many others. They have all invested heavily in open source and large chunks of their hardware and service lines now depend on it.

    For the individual user, many of the same forces apply. Sure, maybe a large number are happy to be dictated to by Apple or some other vendor. But a large number are not. I’m one of them and I’m far from alone. Percentage-wise we may be 5% or 10%. But in absolute terms, we number in the millions and tend to be at the more skilled end of the food chain and can clearly understand the costs of being shut down and restricted by a vendor.

    Open Source is safe. It’s also a great way for people learning to program to get their work out there and gain experience and feedback. It’s a necessary part of the software eco-system now.

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  8. @Steve – I think there’s a strong demand for Open Source, I’m saying the supply will dry up as developers choose to write for paying customers.

    My comments are specifically about applications, the plumbing stuff is part of the global IT infrastructure and companies can find money to pay for developers.

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  9. Thanks. I understand better the limits around your proposition. It must be undermined somewhat where a given developer is being well paid in a day job and does Open Source at night or on the weekends. I’d say that has always been the case and not much has changed. Maybe my view is coloured by 57% of Android apps being free while the proportion for Apple Store is much, much lower. Maybe it’s just Open Source *Apple* developers who will dry up…as the Android market seems to not be experiencing any shortage. ;-)

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  10. @Steve – I don’t see this happening overnight. It’ll take a couple of years maybe more, but certainly less than five years.

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  11. I don’t think that OPen Source is in risk because you have a “Software Store” (Apple Store) that can give money directly to single developers.

    OSS developers want their projects to grow and help other people, their motivation goes from public recognition, hobbie or personal satisfaction. They can have a day job and later they took little (or much) amount of their personal time to create a software with or without others. They sure will like to make money and may charge for OSS software, but selling license is not the business for OSS, services is the business.

    I think that with Apple latests policy to forbid from Apple Store applications that are not develop in their SDK will limit OSS software on the Ipad-iPod. This happens because OSS developers and porters does not use Apples SDK exclusive and it will make it more difficult to port OSS to that platform.

    The problem is that the press don’t say that because they all love/use Apple. iPad/iPoad are good products after all but it limits users since Apple filter all applicatiosn and it limits developers since they can use the language of choice (ex, now Flash, tomorrow?).

    Even that iPad/iPod is a good product, today we also measure development and software choice freedom on a device.

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  12. @Martin

    I wrote this piece before Apple changed the rules about allowing applications not developed with certain tools. This clearly changes things – many developers will choose open source because they don’t want to be dictated to in this way.

    The change certainly weakens my argument.

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