Who pays these people?

Whenever I discuss the dynamics of the open-source community, someone inevitably asks, "Who pays the salaries for all of this software development? How can these programmers survive by writing free software?"

A few open-source programmers are fortunate to have jobs writing open-source code full-time. Others have jobs where enlightened employers allow them to work on particular open-source projects part-time because the company benefits from advances in these projects. Still, others enjoy consulting on open-source projects for customers.

Nonetheless, I believe most open-source programmers do not make their living by writing open-source code. Many are professional programmers, consultants, and (ahem) journalists by day, and open-source developers by night.

At this point in my argument, someone inevitably claims that the absence of monetary motivation will be the downfall of the open-source movement. Without an army of well-paid coders, they claim, the open-source movement is doomed to run out of gas before it produces useful software. Without financial incentives, the programmers will not stay on course when things get tedious.

I first ran into this objection in 1997. The hot issue back then was whether or not Linux would ever have a truly usable GUI. Many pundits prognosticated that because simple desktop interfaces are more important to average users than to technical developers, unpaid developers would never expend the effort needed to make a truly easy-to-use GUI. Little did these pundits realize that the open-source community would create not one, but two excellent GUIs: KDE and Gnome.

The same issue arose again in 1999 over the subject of office applications. Skeptics claimed that open-source developers would never produce the basic office applications needed by the business community. A scant two years later, the open-source community is abuzz with work on office tools. The Evolution mail client with its Outlook-like capabilities is about to see its official Version 1 release. KDE's KOffice suite is already up to Version 1.1.

A large assortment of other business applications are progressing as well, from the Gnome Office Suite to the OpenOffice project, which was born from the StarOffice code that was opened by Sun Microsystems. Within the next two quarters, the number of stable open-source office applications will be very impressive indeed.

The notion that money is the only motivator for producing good, business-quality software has proven to be false. The open-source movement has demonstrated that it can produce high-quality software without a direct paycheck as an essential part of the equation. Yes, developers need to eat, but as long as end-user companies need staff and consultants to achieve their business goals, there will be plenty of paychecks available.

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