It’s free, but do you mind paying?

Here’s something I’d like to see more of: UberWriter is free (open source, GPL3), yet by default if you go to install it you’ll have to pay $5.  The old “free as in freedom of speech” rather than “free as in free beer”.

From the creator’s point of view, “Free as in speech” means several things:

  • The project is open to collaboration – if you have something to add, please do!
  • If you see a different future for this project than I do, you don’t have to ask my permission.  You can build on what I’ve started and do something new and different.  I may or may not want what to merge your changes back in.
  • If you’re not someone that’s likely to pay me money (you have a different native language, you live in an area I can’t sell to, you’re don’t have enough money…) then that’s okay, feel free to take what I’ve done anyway and see if you can build on it.
  • If you’re really poor (developing world, unfunded startup, student) then you can still use the software and pay it back (or pay it forward) later.  I’m just glad people are using (and enjoying) something I’ve made.
  • If you’re worried about security, you can know exactly what your software is doing by getting a developer to audit the code.  I promise I’m not working for your corrupt government.
  • If I ever close shop and discontinue the product, you can keep using it, without having to worry about where to get new copies.  Feel free to make new copies, or to hire a developer to maintain it, even to release your own version.  I promise not to get angry.

But from the creator’s point of view, “free as in beer” has several negative implications:

  • I don’t have a strong plan to make money off this, so it will remain a side-project or a hobby.  I might love it, but I’ll never give it the time, money and support it needs to be amazing.
  • I have to pay my bills.  So the work I do that pays bills will always be more important than the work I do for this project.

Commercial projects that succeed (especially software projects) often have a founder who is hugely passionate about it, and absolutely stoked that they get to work on their passion as their full time job.  For many open source developers, this isn’t a reality.

So what if you want to balance those two things:

  1. Create, invent, make art.  And give it away to the world in the most generous, considerate way possible.
  2. Make money so that I can continue to develop this, perfecting it and supporting it and giving it every opportunity to succeed.

Well, that’s what UberWriter is doing.  It has all the same freedoms as “free as in speech”.  And if you really don’t want to pay for it, you can find ways to get it for free, and that’s allowed too, it’s not illegal and it won’t make the creator cry.  But, if you want to get it the easiest way, and you want to support the developer, it’s $5.

I hope he does well, makes some money, maybe even is able to make it his main job – so that he is empowered to make some good software become really great software.  And I hope to see more people balance this act of being generous with earning a living… myself included.

People are clueing on…

VentureBeat has a write up on Why Venture Capitalists can’t afford to ignore EdTech any longer. The wider world is waking up to the fact that something needs to change.

I just hope the change is for something more open.  They compare it to the changes in enterprise – where people where locked on expensive propriety software, and the escape has come in the form of cloud computing and software-as-a-service. This is more open in some ways (You don’t have to use a Windows machine any more, you could use a Mac or Linux or your phone or tablet or internet-powered-fridge), but in other ways, it’s more locked.  You have to keep paying the monthly bill, with no promise it won’t increase later.  You have to trust that the company will never go bankrupt, or never go evil.  And even if the company has open APIs or let’s you download your data, it usually is hard to migrate over to a competitor later.

I’d hate to see education locked up like that.  You can have these amazing learning resources – but they’ll stay on our servers, thank-you-very-much.  We’ll help you define all your lesson plans, but it’s on the condition that they never leave our app, so you’ll keep coming back.  We’ll help analyse the data about how all your students are learning and performing, but that data stays on our servers and we might use it for something else later, and there’s not much you can do about that.

I want to fight for the upcoming EdTech revolution to be open:

  • The school stays in control, and isn’t held ransom to their software suppliers
  • The content teachers create is theirs, and they can hold onto it, share it, and take it with them if they switch to a different software product.  They don’t have to write everything all over again because their school switched providers.
  • People see the value of creative commons – and they gladly cooperate in developing the best educational materials, rather than hoarding what they do for their own benefit.  (I think the teachers creating great material tend to be generous, it’s the business people that they work with that might not be).
  • When someone goes to the effort to create amazing content, and they want to share it, they should be able to.  For example, an e-book shouldn’t be stuck on iPad only.  It should work on phones (cheap ones included), computers, printouts (to whatever extent makes sense) and competing tablets.  And be future-proof and work on whatever the next-big-thing is.

Education is too important for it to be controlled by a small group of start-up shareholders.