Phillip Smith

Making open-source software development financially sustainable


Last week I was chatting with David Wheeler. (This guy is a one-man software development shop: he's responsible for Bricolage CMS, about 100 CPAN modules, and the new Design Scene app, and a heck of a lot more. Our conversation was about the work that's underway here in Toronto on the CPAN-API project. David's working on a similar project -- PGXN, the PostgreSQL Extension network. It is a central distribution system for open-source PostgreSQL extension libraries -- and we were discussing the API that is going to be baked into the project from day one. Alas, this post is not about PostgreSQL or APIs, but about how technology innovation is getting bootstrapped these days. This, no doubt, will be a bit of a ramble... my apologies in advance.

So, after the conversation, I wanted to get caught up on the PGXN project and headed over to the PGXN blog. The most recent post was about successfully raising $25,000 USD from companies and individuals, and imparted this wisdom:

"I'm thrilled to find that this approach to getting a project going actually works. I've had the idea for PGXN for a long time, but knew that I was never going to be able to make it happen unless I could get help. So putting things together, writing a spec and project plan, and putting together the fundraising site with a prominent "fundraising thermometer" and contribution levels ... well, it really paid off."

I thought, "Damn, that is a pretty impressive outcome." It is not without precedent – for many years now, software developers have posted bounties as a way to enable individuals and organizations to contribute toward a new feature, or software initiative – but the scale seems to be changing. $25,000 is not a small investment in the context of micro-venture-capital funding of as little as $18,000.

The concept has certainly gotten a kick in the pants recently from high-profile projects like Diaspora on fundraising sites like Kickstarter (reportedly, they raised $200,000). Mozilla is also exploring a similar model for the Drumbeat initiative, which has already grown some great projects like Web Made Movies and Universal Subtitles.

I guess what I'm wondering is: Are we entering an era of "cloud funding? And, if so, what does it mean for how open-source software is being produced now, and in the future? There seems to be a spectrum. At one end is the CouchDB approach: a commercial company spun-up to provide commercial support (CouchIO), which in-turn feeds the open source project. At the other end is seemingly selfless lone developers that lead projects like ElasticSearch and Mojolicious. I have to ask, how long can the later model last?

So, David's story started to answer that for me. More than a bounty, it's a real cloud fundraising effort that exposed the huge amount of work required to pull of a project like PGXN and (some of) the true cost of that work. I'm sure there are more examples (if you know of any, please leave a comment below).

I like the innovation that's happening now in software and Web services. I don't want it to stop. Similarly, I hate seeing abandoned software projects, open source or otherwise. Perhaps creative destruction is part of innovation and that's just a fact of life. On the other hand, David's comments above -- about being organized, documented, and presenting people with an opportunity -- could be part of the solution toward enabling individuals to do the great work that needs to be done, without mortgaging the project's future.

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Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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