I've been thinking all night trying to define the unease that was caused by attending the Open Source Think Tank.
It's hard for me to find out if this unease is caused because I was in an environment far away from my comfort zone, or if something else was going on.
I didn't feel like I belonged at the OSTT, and I woke up with a sentence from a French poem on my mind: "Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées, Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher."
This is the complete poem:
Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal)
Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.
Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.
That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!
The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.
Translation — William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
It sounds pretentious, I know, but this is what I mean: I'm a developer. I feel at ease in the realm of developers (the air?). At the OSTT, I was immersed in a completely different environment (the sea?) and at times I fell short of air.
I think Mike Milinkovich (Eclipse Foundation) captured the general theme of this year's OSTT:
The Apache Software License is indeed a great license for companies who embrace Open Source. A slogan that was repeated over and over again, was:
Adopt, Adapt, Create
Companies want to adopt software they can readily use (and under the ASL, they can do so for free).
They want to adapt the software that isn't an exact match with what they need (they can do so if the source is open).
They want to create the software that doesn't exist yet (and as a 'good citizen', they are willing to share that software).
Elaborating on that theme, it was clear that we need to evolve towards a 'meritocracy' where those companies who do the work, get to decide how the work is done. "Don't ask what open source can do for you, ask what you can do for open source."
I like that attitude, but in my opinion, one problem was overlooked. To me, the problem is huge, because it concerns me and my business directly. From a more general point of view, the problem maybe be negligable, and that's what scares me terribly.
What if I'm an independent developer? What if I write awesome software and I publish it under the Apache Software License? Do I get a say in how things should be done? And more importantly: what are my merits? How can I make a living?
I'm pretty sure that everyone at the OSTT agrees that it's OK to make money with Open Source Software, but as a developer, I felt like a singer-songwriter at a conference of the music industry. It was as if different software labels were thinking of ways to squeeze as much money as possible out of the code artists. At a certain moment, I was thinking: how dare you talk about meritocracy if you force a developer to depend on charity rather than on business? Several groups used the slogan "Say no to GPLv3" in their final presentations.
That explains my feeling: as a creature of the air, I almost drowned in the sea of lawyers, licensing managers, business people at the OSTT.
I didn't get an acceptable answer regarding my question: How can I create a sustainable business, other than using a dual licensing model?
This is an answer I received on Facebook:
Focus on training/consultancy instead of trying to sell licenses. Like I already told you before, I still feel the current communication is negative (example: "buying a license vs hiring a lawyer"). Pdf/print is a highly specialized, complex domain hence consultancy is often absolutely necessary or cheaper than trying to figure it out oneself. Additionally you can provide support packages which include priority bug fixing, specialized builds,... A successful example project is Vaadin. iText has a large install base. Now it is up to you to find a way to reach them and cultivate paying customers and (code)contributors :)
Sorry, but I'm an Albatros, there's a limit to what I can do.
I can write code, but if I publish it under the Apache Slavery License, I can't make any money with that code. If I spend all my time on doing 'projects', the 'product' will suffer (and maybe even die) because I don't have any more time to do core development.
I can write documentation (I wrote two books), but the money you make writing a book, doesn't cover the costs. I could charge for support, but... that's not in my nature. My sales people hate me because I'm still answering questions on the free mailing list. You shouldn't answer those questions! You should force people with questions to pay you for your answers! But where's the honor in that? I like answering questions, and when I answer one person's question in public, dozens of other people with the same question can also benefit from that answer. That saves them (and me!) plenty of time. Also: it's good marketing if you have good documentation and an active mailing list.
I can teach iText, but that's not scalable: I can only be at one place on the same time, and while I teach I can't write any code. I could train trainers, but as you say: Pdf is a highly specialized, complex domain, hence there aren't many people who can give that kind of training.
When I complained that I felt somewhat isolated, Mike Milinkov answered:
Yes, there were other small companies in the room: companies offering OSS consultancy, companies offering cloud or other services, companies reselling and distributing software,... But apart from Frank Cohen, I didn't see any other developers with a technical software product. This could be a sign that we're a dying breed.
Of course, there's yet another business model that may be worth looking at. A couple of days ago, I already mentioned Mark Stephen's blog about making two different releases: a limited release containing core functionality, and an extended release adding extra features.
That's also what Balder suggests:
But if you close up code, aren't you doing something that goes against everything that makes open source attractive?
No, none of the answers sounds appealing to me, although I won't mind buying Adriaan, Balder, Mark, and others a beer if I ever meet them again in Ghent.
As for Mike, Andrew, and the many other fine people I met at the OSTT: please don't see this blog as a criticism. I hope you understand that I'm really struggling with some questions. The answers may be in front of me, but I don't see them. During the iText summit, Mark Stephens described it like this: 'people who are able to read ISO-32000-1 and succeed in writing software that produces PDF, are like people who can fluently speak a language after reading a dictionary from A to Z.' The fact that we can do something like that sometimes gives people the idea that we're smart, some even call us geniuses, but we're not. Or rather: I'm not (I can't speak for anybody else). So please teach me: how can somebody like me create a sustainable business without the AGPL, given the arguments that exclude training, consultancy,... because of the very specific, specialized and complex nature of my product and expertise? Now that the artists are slowly escaping from the claws of the music industry, how can the independent developer make sure he doesn't get tangled up in the games of the big corporations?