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Open Market for Open Softwarecoders who can’t afford to do open source will revolutionize software

This post is part of a series, Killjoy.

The open source mindset in 2022 is right where proprietary mania was thirty years ago: standing in the way of the biggest rush of pent-up programmer potential yet to hit computing. Half of humanity’s online. Millions more could contribute fundamental code. But they’ll need to earn in the open, not just work there. They’ll need an open users pay for.

They’ll get it.

When old believers say money and open source shouldn’t mix, what more and more prospects hear is that they’re not welcome. They know there’s money in open source, just not where they can reach it. They can’t work for nothing, wait years to catch a break, or raise seed money or a grant to pay all their bills until it all comes through. If coding in the open can’t pay as they go, they can’t code in the open. If some kinds of software just have to cost nothing, no matter how much they can make it worth, those aren’t kinds of software they can do.

Programmers who can aren’t dying out, but they’re no longer the story. Potential workaday coders outnumber hackers of leisure like hackers of leisure outnumbered staff at proprietary firms. More eyes for maintenance. Better odds that someone’s itchy and motivated. Toppling barriers between coder can-do and source code enables technical progress, whether the barriers happen to be legal, technical, financial, or cultural.

The tenets of early open source hammered on licenses and source code because those were the blockers for relatively affluent early Internet adopters. But they’ve hardened under hype into a view of software that not only can’t see money the way everyone else does, but convinces itself that pricing code will let the magic smoke out of public collaboration. If there’s one true ideal for getting software made online, it needs to maximize contribution Web-wide, from all connected people, not enshrine a local maximum and set up conflicts from there.

Demographics win in the end. Coders and companies are going to pay for basic tools and components again, they’re going to get their money’s worth, and they’re going to outcompete those who don’t. Licensing is the next rung up the business-model ladder that precocious coders can reach from entry-level global jobs, and talents working those jobs are legion. There’s nothing stopping them from using the Web to find and sell customers, just like they use it to find and recruit contributors. There’s nothing stopping them from selling what they do, rather than doing that and selling something else, which requires money or time they don’t have. No group of people is better equipped to count software usage, calculate software fees, and move the money than computer programmers.

Facilitating this change, rather than fighting it, is a big, unrealized opportunity for those who do have skills and cycles to spare. Bigger than applying known tech to one more market niche after another, startup by startup, product by product. The software game can be improved, not just played well. New and potential players still dwarf the signed rosters of industry.

At the same time, proactively guiding this process toward freewheeling, walk-on competition, rather than capture by the inveterate vig hunters and walled-garden bricklayers of the megafirms, is a big, unappreciated political challenge. Will the world software market be a free, open Web or a private platform under some feudal firms’ pricey protection? Are we going to end up ploughing for one big app store?

We are engineering the answer to this question now. Socially. Mostly unwittingly.

The businesspeople are on it. Look and you’ll see the signs.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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