What’s wrong with Linux? Software developer Bryan Lunduke has often lectured on this topic on his podcast, the Linux Action Show, and at conferences. (This has earned him a contingency of critics in the open source community, he says, as well as a reputation for being candid and outspoken.)
The open source model has worked well for larger companies and developers that attract corporate sponsors. But it’s still very difficult for independent developers such as him to make a living coding software for the platform, he says.
“There’s not a good case study and business model for how (indie developers) profit from open source software,” Lunduke said. “I’ve been harping on this topic for years now. We need to not only build a viable solution, but find people who will actually try it.”
After 10 years of developing and selling proprietary software, but believing in open source development, Lunduke now says he’s tired of talking about it. He’s putting his money where his mouth is.
Last Monday Lunduke announced he would open source five of his programs, including Illumination Software Creator, Radical Comic Designer and Linux Tycoon. That is, if he can attract enough subscribers to earn $4,000 per month.
He’s asking his users, supporters and open source believers to pitch in as little as $2 per month through PayPal. In exchange, the software will be free and open source for everyone - subscribers and non-subscribers alike.
In the first week he’s gotten commitments for $3,500 per month, and he's optimistic he'll reach his goal in the next few days.
Creating a new business model
A few factors contribute to his likelihood of success, including a large user base for his own software, a diverse range of products from “nerdy to consumery” and a fairly large audience across his various media platforms, Lunduke says. He’s also received attention from Jono Bacon, Aaron Seigo and OMGUbuntu.
“If anyone can pull it off, it’s me,” he says. “I need to man up and try and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
Critics in the blogosphere and social channels have voiced their concerns about a subscription-based business model for open source software donations, versus the one-time donation ask typical of most independent projects. PowerBase blogger Tom Nardi has accused Lunduke of holding his source code hostage in exchange for a monthly salary. Nothing in the GPL license prevents him from releasing the source code and still charging for the software, Nardi argues.
Many commenters were optimistic about the model, but question whether his particular software is the right fit. Still others questioned his ability to retain subscribers for more than a few months.
Lunduke responds that releasing the code outright would kill his software sales – a prospect he can’t afford. He also realistically expects the number of subscriptions to drop after the first few months, once the source code is released. But over the long term he expects donations to climb as he appeals to distribution managers to incorporate his software and the source code makes its way into repositories.
“It’s my way of scaling the user base to be larger in a very practical way,” he said.
If he doesn’t meet his fundraising goal, Lunduke has promised to issue refunds to any initial subscribers. In the meantime, he’s meticulously tracking Web traffic and conversions from his various channels with the aim of producing a white paper documenting the experience.
“It’s really important to show there’s a viable small scale business model,” he says, “where people can make a good living from making open source software.”