This week we’re publishing a series of interviews here at Alledia.com. Every day next week we’ll be talking with a Joomla developer who works with a commercial GPL business model.
Our first interview in GPL week is with David Deutsch from GlobalNerd.org.
1) Could you explain a little about your Joomla product(s)?
The Account Expiration Control Component is a membership management extension. The main feature is to control how long a user is granted access to the host Joomla! system with his or her account. This has been expanded over time to allow for integration with other components (for example assigning VirtueMart shopper groups) or general functionality (like managing htaccess restrictions of a directory). We also have an abstract interface for payment processors so that everybody can write an integration for a processor relatively easy (I found out that it is similar to how oscommerce is handling it). In the coming stable release we also added some other neat features like Coupons and extensive control over who can see which payment options (this allows for hierarchical setup of plans for example).
2) What subscription packages do you offer currently?
Apart from the free membership, it boils down to two packages – One for “regular” paying subscribers and one for “generous” paying subscribers. The difference between these three options is that the more people pay, the higher priority will be assigned to helping them out.
3) What extras do you offer to people who subscribe?
Besides the (priority) support and a wiki manual, our paying subscribers get to download new releases earlier than non-paying members. The other huge plus for them is that I can buy food and keep programming which I consider a nice business asset for them as well.
4) You started on the subscription model before the recent decision by the Joomla core. Why did you decide to offer subscriptions instead of selling your product?
I largely reject the idea to see software as a product. Software is code that is meant to be shared, modified and reused. Its just its nature, just like you wouldn’t try to license a cooking recipe.
What I mean is that if you try to turn software into something it is not – property – you are working against common sense. It is only since big business had its word in these affairs (with a fair share of peoples ignorance), that we have this idea of software as property. It is a flawed concept and it will eventually fail – first shift to pure Software-as-a-Service and then fail completely. If you have an understanding of capitalism, evolution and human nature, this will be pretty obvious.
5) How did you handle the introduction of subscriptions? Were people willing to subscribe or did you need to educate people about the benefits?
The choice to offer subscriptions was only natural given the fact that we were working on a subscription component. Actually, when I was still “only” hacking the AEC (before having globalnerd.org), I was approached by a lot of people who had come to know about my work. Even at that time, people were offering me money for my work, either as donations or as paid job offers. So when I started globalnerd.org, I already knew that people were happy with supporting the project with money. I had also been pondering the idea of financing software development by other means than per-license sale and I thought I’d give it a shot.
The reception of this was very good, people were participating in our forums sharing ideas of what could be made better and/or asking for help on particular problems. Seeing that their wishes were accepted and their problems solved was returned in gratitude and in most cases in subscriptions as well.
6) Do you mind us asking about the level of subscriptions? How many of your users subscribe?
Not at all – of the 4400 Users that are registered on globalnerd, 6% have signed up for a paid subscription. We currently have about 30-50 new registrations per day of which 1 to 3 users buy a subscription.
7) Do you think that now or in the future it will be possible for you to make a full-time living from a GPL business model?
I already make a full time living programming the AEC. You have to keep in mind though that I’m basically still a student and thus I can afford a pretty cheap lifestyle. This year, I will have my premier in also paying taxes and so far it seems as if it will work out. This was the most important thing to me, making it a proof of concept – now I have to build on that to see how I can offer more service that people are willing to pay for. For this, I already have a couple of ideas in the pipeline.
I have to stress here however, that money was always a secondary issue to me. I develop software because its what I really really love to do and I’m in the happy position that others enjoy that as well. This is what is most important to me. As a second step though, I have to carry the consequences of what I do, especially if you keep in mind what kind of software I offer. People have their business based on the code I write and this demands for a high level of professionalism and support. I am slowly building a reputation that I cannot gamble with and which is my only real asset. And since I chose the GPL, I’m at a high risk if I do not live up to the standard I set myself. It’s an amount of pressure that I chose for myself (since lets face it – you sometimes need pressure to get up and get working). It’s my way of driving me to work harder and create better software.
8) Do you have any other thoughts or advice about Joomla moving to the GPL compliance?
I have had a lot of discussion with other developers about the decision the Joomla! Development Team made, so this is going to get a little bit of a long answer. My general take is that many proprietary developers tend to see it as a bad thing only, without even once evaluating whether it might be a good thing as well. In fact, as I hinted at above, I feel that by its implications the GPL enbles a completely different, yet much more productive way, of writing software. It takes a lot of confidence and surely a lot of patience to go this route and I can see why most developers would rather play it “safe”.
Yet this alleged safety is bought at a number of unjustifiable costs, mainly to cut down on the freedom of your users but also to put the development of your business at risk. Eben Moglen has drawn a nice picture of this in his speech at the PLONE conference – what we see today is that bit by bit, Free Software takes shares of the market. The most accepted example here being the GNU+Linux Operating System. We can observe that more and more proprietary software is simply being replaced by free alternatives. Now I’m not saying that replacing software is not happening in the Free Software world, but the outcome is different. If somebody creates a superior product to yours, you have a choice to make to survive. If you have used proprietary licenses and want to stay that route, the costs and work required to do this are immense. You have to keep pace with possibly hundreds of developers. Its not impossible, but it will surely cut away all the companies that are not Microsoft- or Adobe-sized. When the same thing happens to you in the Free Software world, you have plenty of choices. You could for example get in contact with the developers and work with them (see Compiz Fusion), or you could abandon your software and try to get into the new team on the block. The point I’m trying to make here is that proprietary licenses are always about one thing: Segregation. “This is my software and this is yours, everything is a product on its own, at best, we will have interfaces.” Most software is only made to interact by being bought into the same company (see Adobe). In the Free Software world, the first step will always be to ask the “competing” developer for cooperation. What the GPL has established is a common ground, a consensus that says: We have the license part dealt with and you don’t need to worry about major changes to this in the future. Once this is clear, you have the best common ground for cooperation. This is development driven by the spirit of “How can we make the best software and make it work with all this other great software” rather than “How can we make enough money to stay in the race for as long as possible”.
What you will see in most of the arguments that opponents of the GPL compliance idea use is that their first interest really is to secure their income. They will cover this up arguing that allowing only GPL compatible software to be used with Joomla! would be about limiting the freedom of choice. I don’t think any human in his or her right mind would accept the possibility to factor out cooperation a particularly good choice. It seems hard for them to understand that working together is the only thing that actually does enable income to be generated. The whole financial system, indeed every major system that governs our lifes is based on the consensus of cooperation amongst humans, even if imposed (well, thats another long story). We have money because we agree there must be a common way of trading goods, we have governments because we agree on that there has to be a democratic way of making larger decisions. All that we are relies on accepting that we are not defined by what seperates us, but what makes us become better together, as a species. The more you cut away from this, the less we humans will be interested in it. Who cares about all the money in the world if there is no-one left to share? How far will you get if no-one is interested in helping you out?