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Barnstorming On the Tarmac

  Dr. Bennet

Bill and Larry were seated beside each other on a flight supposedly to Seattle. Poor weather had kept them on the ground in Atlanta for hours. Bill was thinking that he could have taken an ocean liner through Panama, had a much more luxurious trip, and saved some time. Larry was thinking that his laptop battery wasn't going to make it. When it started to give out, he decided he'd try talking to a human being.

Larry: Hi. Name's Larry. What are you headed to Seattle for?
Bill: Hi Larry, Bill. Headed home. No place like it, as they say. You?
Larry: Fairly useless meeting. We're making a big software changeover. Certain managers seem to need the process explained repeatedly, in person, using very small words. And they won't believe any of the words unless they've been typed into Power-point.
Bill: Hmmph. Well, managers don't usually like big changes, which isn't always bad. What sort of disruptive, frightening conversion are you foisting upon your timorous leaders?
Larry: Oh, new web server software. We're converting everything over to Apache. Know what a web server is?
Bill: I even know what Apache is. You're not exactly joining an exclusive club, there. Apache's quite popular. Never made sense to me, though.
Larry: Why not? It's flexible, stable and —
Bill: You don't have to pay for it. That's what doesn't make sense. Using it certainly does. Our IT guys think it's great. What doesn't make sense is that the Apache folks give it away. Why don't they sell it?
Larry: Well, it's hardly unusual. There are a number of serious free software projects available. Linux is all over the web, not to mention the the BSDs. There's MySQL and PostgreSQL, and a boat load of —
Bill: Those don't make sense, either. A bunch of smart folks take all the time and effort to write all that software, and they just give it away. What's reasonable about that?
Larry: What difference does it make? Most people are happy about getting good stuff for free. They've even been known to smile about it.
Bill: Smile all you like, Larry. I like to know what things are actually costing me. If someone gives me something, and doesn't charge what it's worth, they've got to have an angle. I want to know what the angle is, so I can know what I'm really paying.
Larry: What sort of "angle" do you have in mind? The secret Apache plot? Sounds like a really bad movie.
Bill: The plot is quite simple. It's like an on-line store that won't tell you how much the shipping and handling charge is. You know it's there somewhere, and the harder it is to find, the more you know you need to.
Larry: I see. You don't much figure they're working for the high ideal of a free software community?
Bill: Yea, right. Armies of joyful comrades, toiling at monitors for the Cause. Look, folks will work free for their families, and perhaps their friends, for a while. But not for strangers, and not after they start to get hungry. It's just not the way people are. They want to get something for their work, and why shouldn't they? So there's got to be something they're getting that I'm not seeing. I'd like to know what their motives are.
Larry: Have you ever thought that someone could actually benefit just from giving away software?
Bill: I don't see how. If you have something of value, and you give it away for free, that leaves you with less than what you started with. I don't see any way around that.
Larry: How about a little thought experiment?
Bill: Okay. The novel I brought is boring. Maybe you can do better.
Larry: I'll try to be as entertaining as possible. Suppose we're visiting a nice, old-fashioned barn-raising. A large group comes together to build a barn, without pay, to benefit a local family. They start work at dawn, and by sundown, they're one barn richer. Would you say a free software project is like this barn-raising?
Bill: Yes and no. Obviously these folks are working together to create something, then giving it away free. But the contributors at a barn-raising are working in the context of a local community. They no doubt know each other and feel connected. They're helping a neighbor who's had troubles, or just helping them get a start. That's a good and noble thing to do, and a totally different case. Are those Apache guys your personal friends, making sacrifices to help out your large, impoverished corporation with its dire web server needs? I don't think this explains free software at all.
Larry: Well, we're a ways off from that yet. I brought you here just to ask this one question: Are all the workers sacrificing?
Bill: Well, they're all working without pay. Spending time and labor for nothing. Nothing material, anyway.
Larry: Who gets the barn?
Bill: What's that got to do with it?
Larry: Well, after a barn-raising, someone gets a new barn. And, presumably, the members of the recipient family will pitch in to perform some of the labor. So couldn't the members of that family be acting out of self-interest? They're getting a whole barn for just a portion of the labor to create one. Sounds profitable to me.
Bill: Yes, but that's not much difference. The large majority do not profit, and you need them all.
Larry: All true. But this is still a thought experiment, so I thought we'd leave Pennsylvania, or wherever we are, and enter the Twilight Zone. In this episode, our barn-builders encounter the mysterious parallel temporal occupation field.
Bill: Right now, I'll gladly go anywhere that isn't Atlanta. But what on earth, or perhaps "in Zone," is a parallel temporal occupation field?
Larry: When you enter a barn, you cannot see or sense anyone else who is in the barn, nor any of the stuff they bring there. You can only see the barn itself. From your perspective, no one else is there.
Bill: Is that good or bad?
Larry: It's good, because now everyone can use the barn at once. And even if the others stuff it full, you still have the same amount of space for yourself.
Bill: That's nice. Is there anything else to your highly realistic construct?
Larry: It means that the barn-builders don't have to choose who gets to use the barn. They can all use it at the same time. Therefore, all of the barn builders can work out of pure self-interest. They each contribute just part of the work to produce a barn, but they all get to use it as their own.
Bill: Gee, that Twilight Zone can be a convenient place. If I ever buy a farm, I'll check the real estate listings there. But I don't think I'd like the commute.
Larry: Now, you know where I'm headed. A program is just like the Twilight-Zone barn. If a group works together and writes a program, they can all take it home. Copying a program is essentially free, after all. Everyone does a little work, everyone gets the complete product, everyone profits.
Bill: Yes, I saw your point from some distance. But you've left out something important: the giving-away part. Why wouldn't your builders form some sort of partnership? They could use the barn for free themselves, but charge everyone else. How can they benefit from giving it away?
Larry: They could do that, but you haven't accounted for all the expenses. For one, what you suggest is simply more work. If you want to be able to charge any non-trivial amount to use the barn, you must post guards to keep non-payers from sneaking in. But what you really lose is all the free help making improvements.
Bill: How's that?
Larry: Well, in the parallel temporal occupation field, you can't see anyone else who's working in the barn, nor the things they store there. But you can see the barn itself. That means if anyone who is using the barn makes an improvement, everyone benefits. So each user has an incentive to maximize the number of improvements, which means to maximize the number of other users. But every time you keep out someone who cannot or will not pay, you've eliminated a chance for some free help.
Bill: But how many will actually make improvements? It can't be a very high percentage.
Bill: Well, probably not. But adding users is free, after all, because you can still use the barn just as well, no matter how many you're sharing it with. So you don't need a high proportion of improver. And, of course, satisfied users who don't improve the facilities might still tell their friends what a cool barn this is. And some of them might become barn builders.
Bill: So instead of money, they collect free labor. And the more users, the more laborers. Yea, I can see that. But how do you know the percentage who choose to make improvements isn't zero? If I'm a user of the barn, it would seem like my incentive is to sit on my rear until someone else makes the improvement. After all, I can use the improvements just as well if someone else makes them, and I can spend my time on something else the benefits me. In fact, why would the original team start work at all? It seems like the incentive is to wait for someone else to do the work, then give it away. Generalized, no one would do anything at all.
Larry: You're forgetting that old saw that time is money. If you need something, waiting isn't free. That's why banks can charge interest: people will pay money not to wait for something. If you need a barn, you have an incentive to get started, so you can receive it sooner rather than later. In practice, the ones who start work on the barn, or who move most quickly to make a particular improvement, are simply the ones who need it most.
Bill: Okay, let me be sure I follow. Here in the Zone, each original barn-builder makes part of a barn, but gets the use of the whole thing. Thus each just acts in his or her own interest. Then, they let anyone else who wishes to use the barn do so. They profit from this because some of those make improvements, and the rest cost nothing. And this also works for real-world software, since copying is free.
Larry: Cool huh?
Bill: Well, I've got to admit it: your thought experiment was definitely more entertaining than the book I brought.
Larry: I try to deliver.
Bill: So you have a way for the free software project to give code away and still profit. Do you suppose they like their code roasted or boiled?
Larry: Huh?
Bill: Well, you've described a rather cash-free operation. The workers reap code, which they don't sell. How do these folks eat?
Larry: Well, businesses which have an interest in a project may contribute money to pay programmers. Or they can pay their own employees to do so. IBM has famously contributed quite a bit of code to the Linux kernel. IBM profits, along with other users, in the use of an improved kernel. And there are small sources such as web page ads or sales of software on CD. Heck, Apache sells tee shirts of all things.
Bill: It still seems rather speculative, though. Even if there's some incentive to build and give away, how do you know that it is better than the traditional way? Perhaps either way can profit, but the traditional one pays better. Even counting tee shirt revenue.
Larry: Well, that's the sort of question we have markets to sort out. The success of Apache and some of the many other free software projects suggests that, at minimum, it makes sense for some kinds of project.
Bill: You certainly make giving away software sound a lot more sensible than it should be.
Larry: Well, it's a different way of looking at things. We're used to treating programs the way we treat physical objects. But the Twilight Zone rules really do apply to software. Build it once, and any number can use it simultaneously. That, and the fact that software can be incrementally improved, creates some unexpected results.
Bill: I'll give it some thought. In any case, if I don't like the Twilight Zone, I can always change the channel.
Larry: That won't work. This episode is reality TV.
Verson: 0.5