Sunday, December 14, 2008

Revenue models for free software

I have no ideological belief that software should be free, but it certainly seems to be an increasingly prevalent model for software.  Since I don't run my own software company the code I produce doesn't have pay the bills. But although I enjoy writing it, in an ideal world I'd still like to make some kind of income from my work. Probably my biggest piece of code that I've given away has been the FreeFlow library and Administrator, that can be used with Metastorm's BPM product. I've tried out a few different revenue generation techniques with varying degrees of success.

Sell the source - This was the initial model, let anyone download the binaries but charge for the source. It worked reasonably well for the FreeFlow library, which is used by developers to talk to the Metastorm engine. I guess developers are keen to get hold of the source for libraries they are using, to modify for their own needs and reduce the risk if the developer disappears. Unfortunately Metastorm introduced their own .NET library and as time has gone on there's been a lot more interest in the standalone FreeFlow Administrator application. With this, I suspect less people care about the code since if I disappear it won't actually affect their own applications, so sales of the source code have dropped off.

Website advertising - There's been advertising on the FreeFlow website for a long while and I've made a bit of spending money from it, but that's all. One positive of writing software for a BPM product is that most of the ads are for competing BPM products which seem to earn a good amount of money. The downside is that Metastorm is just one of many BPM companies and BPM is still a fairly niche area so I don't get a massive number of visitors to the site.

Donations - This is my latest attempt at earning a bit of cash. The website and the FreeFlow Administrator now have 'Donation' buttons. So far I've not earned anything from this at all. I'm not hugely surprised. If I'm using a free piece of software I very rarely donate any money. If it's shareware, I'm unlikely to pay for the full version even if it has nag screens (WinZip anyone?). The exception to this is SmartFTP, which I paid for because it needed re-installing every few months and it's actually a nice bit of software.

Ads in the application - I haven't tried this yet and I'm not even sure how ads can be added to a desktop application but it seems to be the path FeedDemon is going down. I may wait and see how well it goes for that software and my own donations before going down the same route. One of the nice advantages of not needing to earn any money from my software is I can try out different models for as long as I want before trying out something else.

A buy out - There has been interest from people wishing to buy FreeFlow off me but there have been no concrete offers as yet. I'd definitely consider a serious offer. Even though I have some emotional attachment to the code I've written I'm not dumb enough to refuse a reasonable amount of money if somebody offered it. Unfortunately as this is a niche product, I can't really see there being a huge number of suitors... 

In conclusion, I think if I was starting from scratch I'd probably try writing software with a potentially wider audience. Something like TimeSnapper, which is of use to almost anybody. And I'd probably try a similar pricing model to their software, a basic free version and a more feature-rich professional version. Or an ad-sponsored free version and a paid-for non-ads version. Now I just have to figure out what that software would be...

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