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"Open Source" and "Free"

08 Feb 2011

I think it is important, before we finalize pricing internally, to open the can of worms of the "Open Source" discussion and unpack it in front of the community for discussion. Most importantly, I feel it is important that the Lasso community knows what I (Sean Stephens, CEO) am thinking and help me refine any incorrect dogma and challenge my theories meaningfully. I want to make sure we are going the right direction.

"I have no lid upon my head, But if I did
You could look inside and see
What's on my mind"
    - Dave Matthews

Our new mission is not to squeeze what is left of the Lasso hard-core community for their last few pennies and run into the wilderness twisting our mustachios and cackling with glee. Our mission is to provide the most reasonable and sustainable business model for the Lasso language so that it might flourish - and hopefully become the most prevalent language in the world. We want Lasso to be one of the "big five" languages left standing for future generations. Any lesser motivation would be an acceptance of mediocrity.

To start, I want to readily note that people have conflated the concept of "open source" and the concept of "free". These two concepts are not synonymous. Ironically, everyone agrees on the fact of difference, and then returns to beleaguer their argument with the issues mixed up again (including myself). I agree, "free" and "open-source" are intertwined - but they are not the same thing.

So for the points of this post, I'd like to transparently discuss both points, and ask for some input - to make sure I am not missing anything.

Open-Source

"Open source" software is software whose code is open to anyone interested in viewing and changing the "inside" of a working piece of software, while returning any changes to the group for inclusion in the software for the benefit of all. One of the core (and most forgotten) points of language-picking-realities relates to the perception of the end client, not just the cult developer. The Bill Rule: he who pays the bills, rules. What is important about open-source to the end client?

So I look through the lens of the customer, I suggest the following from my head;

Perceived Benefits of Open Source
Anyone can jump in and help improve the product
The language won't "disappear" should the owner of the code disappear
The community can help drive a common direction for the product
Authors are motivated by pride and peer recognition, not cash
No ongoing draconian licensing arrangements

Perceived Cons to Open Source
No central leadership to define direction, which can hamper progress
No central support covenant or point of communication in a failure or emergency scenario
Authors don't get paid for their work
*Government funding is less likely or impossible to capture

Requirements of Open Source
Active and strong participation of community members
Community member skill
Strong organizational and leadership skills

As I look at this list, they all have simple rebuttals;

Anyone can jump in and help improve the product - As "Lasso" has traditionally catered to the "everyman" or "occasional" programmer, there are only a few individuals in the community who have the genuine skills necessary to improve the product at a meaningful rate.  Almost all of the individuals in the community with the skills are now without meaningful spare time, as the Internet Generation is now having children and disappearing on us into child hell (Me, Kyle, Tom, Ke, etc. Who else, btw?). They all need to make money to feed their children - our parents can't support us any longer while we hang out in the basement and code for free. Those who are being paid are producing at an extraordinary rate.

The language won't "disappear" should the owner of the code disappear - This can be handled through software escrow services (more to follow on this shortly).

The community can help drive a common direction for the product - There does not appear to be regular consensus in the Lasso community on, well, anything. Show me two Lasso programmers in a room who agree on something and I'll show you two Lasso programmers agreeing that beer is better than water (the only time I've ever seen mass agreement).

Authors are motivated by pride and peer recognition, not cash - Authors then choose to work on their own agenda, on their own time, at their own pace, where a big project needs to be run by a high-level strategy. I like to get paid. I believe developers like to be paid, especially when they are doing things they don't want to do (Kyle, hows 8.6 coming?). Slavery is considered inappropriate in many places of the world. Additionally, there are many places to gain peer recognition already within the community irrelevant of complete open-source, and many more about to emerge.

No ongoing draconian licensing arrangements - This is a great argument against Microsoft, but not LassoSoft. The basic economic reality is this: programmers don't just vote with their hands, but with their feet. Many have voted, unfortunately. A good company culture with good leadership listens carefully and acts accordingly to minimize hassle for the greater good - and this includes editing and rethinking their licensing arrangements.

*Government funding is less likely or impossible to capture - The Government of Canada is currently indirectly financially supporting development of Lasso as it enables Canadians to "commercially exploit the results" (sic, from their stimulus literature). Should Lasso suddenly become completely open-source, Lasso is all on its own in the wilderness again. The Canadian Government is invested in seeing Lasso succeed. If you are an innovative company, you should consider moving to Canada. Yes, it's frickin cold. But we have perks, as Canadian politicians try and place themselves at the forefront of innovation and technology. Go Canada!

My point: I don't see any strong arguments for the case of open source as the business of Lasso currently sits. In addition;

- Although it has yet to be recognized, Lasso 9 is a shockingly immense project, which should have full-time allocated programming resources.
- If we want to surpass the quality of other languages through additional competitive advantages (i.e. stay ahead), we need committed and constant developer resources.
- A LOT of Lasso 9 is viewable-source (or source has been made available to explicit people), and we regularly including fixes from outside developers anyway (*kudos* Bil, Ke, Jolle, Brad * kudos*).

In other words, making the product "open source" at this time, in my opinion, would mean the end of Lasso. It would be like giving away tickets for free to a hockey game. The stadium would fill, but professional players wouldn't show up. The beer would still be as expensive and as bad, but the hockey would suck.

The Lasso Open-Source Movement

Before I continue, I think it is important for the world to know that there was a team of individuals who were intent on working together to purchase Lasso from the old LassoSoft and package it into a Not-for-Profit (as opposed to the incorrectly termed "non-profit", which was already the case at the time). The realities of this project, from my perspective, were not a reality. Allow me to start with why I think this to be the case;

- The team needed to generate about 500k in donations to get the .org running, which was completely unrealistic.
- The team needed to have a future economic metaphor to continue to generate donations, which didn't exist. I'll bet you a beer you haven't donated to Wikipedia. I have yet to meet someone who has (or has admitted to it).
- The team needed to quickly organize and structure a high-level strategy, which failed to evolve as different people had different agendas and opinions.

I have spoken to some of these members, as my first hope was to get behind them and help them get it happening (and save the death of Lasso, in which my other company Treefrog had great investment and belief). But once some basic facts emerged about the size, skill and energy left in the community - it was obvious: there just wasn't enough raw energy left in the community to make a successful exit into open-source.

Additionally, should "Lasso" be given to a not-for-profit, there are still significant costs involved. As noted in an earlier post, it has/can cost tens of thousands of dollars to get basic components up and running just for testing a single OS installer. Yes, Google can afford this easily. However, there does not seem to be a single entity in the community who is willing to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars with the only reward being pride and peer recognition. (Heck, getting $1 out of some people is a dog-fight).

Not now. Maybe one day.

The Cult of "Free"

And now comes the rub: how much Lasso "costs".

I am regularly asked why someone should "pay" for a CMS instead of using Wordpress, which is "free". My answer is always the same: Wordpress isn't "free as in beer", it's "free as in puppies". If you find a puppy in a box by the side of the road, and take it home with you, you will suddenly be saddled with installation costs (i.e. inoculations and a doghouse), and IT issues (long term hip issues and behavioural issues). If you purchase a puppy from a reputable breeder, you'll pay roughly the same in the short term for a much more useable product. You can even return it if it fails to work as contractually intended.

The product might have bugs (fleas), but that's an issue from the ground up with either product.

The up-front costs of a puppy are all irrelevant in the long term support and management costs of the dog. In twelve years, we have had four servers hacked - all through "free" (and, I will note open-source) products. We have never had a Lasso CMS site hacked. It's worth the cash I save in server hassle to sleep through the night.

(I will also note, a puppy is also "open-source". As with Wordpress, if you fiddle with and take apart a perfectly working puppy - chances are you will end up with a completely non-functional puppy, with no help to put it back together).

The reasons noted by developers as to why Lasso should be free, which are all good points, I could refute (allow me to do so);

A product cost creates a barrier to entry for new developers - Then remove the barrier to entry for newbies. The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, isn't the cost, it's the value proposition. Today there isn't a good documentation site, there are no good tutorials - the content and community of the Lasso world has been fractionalized and marginalized. The marketing is sparse, the support has been sparser. We are fixing this.

A product cost means uncompetitive hosting options - This is merely because the pricing model hasn't changed in 15 years. .Net hosting is widely available, and it ain't free. We are working on this as well, so that more and more hosting options exist.

A product cost will shy people away to "free" options - This is not a fact, but a perception. Microsoft Word is much more expensive than Pages. Personally, I prefer Pages. But Microsoft Word is still outselling Pages significantly.

One can get a car for free (I just gave mine away today), but it may or may not get you as quickly from point A to point B as a Buggatti Veyron. Some people are willing to pay for the Buggatti. If we want Lasso to have the economic ability to pay for it's future, we need regular cash infusion. This can be focused, small amounts from many people, where we need to bring value to the table for developers and end users in return for long term value for the end client.

What must happen is the creation of a regularized, small donation cost to economically grow the business to support more and more input and new products. If these products have a true value proposition (i.e. easier and better, or more secure and faster), which has been well articulated in marketing collateral, the Lasso project will swell. Those of us who are left standing today will be standing at the top of a big group in the future.

What Lasso needs is strong, focused marketing in a common direction, focused on the end user - not the developer. And it needs to balance fairly what will allow the project to grow while balancing what the market will bear.

We are doing this as we speak and thinking it through as we speak (or I guess, as I write).

Other Solutions

Many developers have sent me excellent treatises on financial models for open-source. Most of these involve a plethora of other support products (e.g. Zend), with complex and brilliant metaphors for revenue generation.

The catch is, as the current status quo exists, no other products or systems currently exist to lean on. Firstly, the community numbers just don't add up (for advertising, etc.), and secondly, someone still has to go build all of these products and assume the costs of these products. Unless someone is willing to build these products for free, they will take time and effort: and then buy-in time. In addition, they have to jump the technological adoption gap into mainstream adoption. It's a wonderful dream, but not steeped in current reality.

Right now, there is one product - Lasso - (well, versions of this), which is/are excellent. Lasso 9 has genuine value to a developer where it comes to ease of use, security (at the least, through obscurity) and numerous turn-key tags which have development benefits to the end user. I can prove this if only through the immense current success of Treefrog.

Again, a long-term (read: 5 year) road map could include a strategy for making Lasso "free". But the numbers as they exist don't support this option. And by the time we get there (i.e. 5 years from now), the world will have changed into something completely different, and I will likely be calling my posts from this era "idealistic" and "immature". I wish I knew now what I will know in 5 years.

Time will tell.

So, in essence, I believe that in the short term, until other products exist to support the value of the Lasso product as it currently exists, there is no way to economically support Lasso without it being a closed source product with a meaningful and strong financial business model. Again, I say: I believe the long-term goal of Lasso will likely be as an "open-source" model. This just isn't the right time. Unfortunately, this means Lasso will not be free any day soon - we will be begging you for your support and help any day now. Get our yer wallet and start counting yer money, we are gonna need it as a community.

Before we go live with our new site in the next few weeks (hopefully), and after we have had a good discussion about the above, I will get into more detail about our plan for pricing and let people give their input.

Open the floodgates of disagreement: now...
 

Comments

by Ke, 16 February 2011

"there is no way to economically support Lasso without it being a closed source product with a meaningful and strong financial business model."

Keeping the core of Lasso closed source makes sense on so many levels — from security through to asset retention that I don't think another option warrants much examination on the short term.

However the bulk of Lasso, in my head what I consider the framework should most definitely be open. It's of no use to any other language as it's all written in Lasso and the design patterns are common enough not to warrant protection. However the value of these components being open for both critical examination and inspiration is immense.

The other example is bug fixes — obviously the more closed Lasso the less bug fixes will come Lassosoft's way. Not just bug reports but actual fixes.

There's no reason why the bulk of Lasso can't be open — providing the core is locked down (syntax parser, compiler etc) it's value is protected and it remains secure. Whilst Lassosoft and the rest of the community yields the benefits of predominately open code base...

In terms of pricing, this most definitely needs to be addressed. From my perspective the biggest weak point is large scale licenses — from a startups perspective looking to build the next big thing the cost per server is too severe and there's no public pricing scale. An all you can eat (client / company wide) price or subscription model may be one solution to this — there are many possibilities that should be explored (and hopefully are).

Ke

by Jason Huck, 15 February 2011

Absolutely agree with both your short- and long- term views on pricing. Not sure I understand how you're defining your target audience, though. Who is an "end user" vs. a "developer" and why do you want to market to the former instead of the latter?

by Amando Blasco, 10 February 2011

Very interesting article - I bought Lasso years ago (version 3) and at that time we were pioneers in doind a dynamic site with a Filemaker database and an iMac. Price was a good ROI because we could do a lot of things automatically, while most of the sites were updated by hand. Coldfusion was the other choice, but were too expensive and difficult to begin with.

At that time a page with 1 million visitors was a success (we were asked by France Telecomm to buy GamesReview.com for 1 million dollar, that was a nightmare, although we didn't like the offer). I am talking aboou 2000 or 2001.

Now if a site is succesfull needs to have at lest 10 million users to get funds, and the blog growth crazyness ruined us. Everyone can setup a blog un a couple of days and begin doing his stuff.

My worries are not about paying a license to develop a new proyect with lasso. Are the costs to deploy multiple servers with multiple lasso licenses. There's no way to compete with PHP as it's free for deployment.

RealBasic was among Lasso one of my favourites development tools. They gives you a 90 day release with new features and bug fixes, and if you want, you renew your upgrade subscription, but they don't charge royalties for your software. Lasso problem in my opinion is that charges royalties as your project grows (more servers + more lasso licenses).

I will opt for a development platform that is based on a developer basis rather on the number of servers. More servers means more growth, therefore developers.

Imagine an startup company with 2 developers and 2 artists that develop a new socialengine or wathever is now hyped. If they success those 2 developers will became 20 or 200 in the short term. 200 licenses of Lasso will give you money, more developers to further enhace Lasso, and of course marketing for the language as well for a company that chosed you.

I think it's an smart way of making a transition betwen open source code and open deployment of lasso on servers.

Regards,

Amando

by Tom Parker, 09 February 2011

I would fully expect to pay for Lasso. I think of ESRI (ArcGIS) as an analogous company to Lasso (at least the vision of Lasso). There are many free and open source Geographic Information System (GIS) tools available, but I accept paying $5,000 per ArcGIS seat for a basic license plus extensions because it is a comprehensive tool that allows my company to develop complete spatial data/mapping products within one environment. I like Lasso because nearly everything I need (at least on the server side) is available within one integrated toolbox. Many open source projects require that you configure multiple open source tools to work together. As an end user, it is a better business model for me to spend my time doing what I am good at (ecological restoration design), not configuring and maintaining servers and dealing with version incompatibilities. Hard core developers might understandably have a different perspective, but if end users are your target market, the more Lasso can be a one-stop shopping trip for server-side web tools, the more an ESRI-type model should work for you. I'm not suggesting you charge $5k out of the blocks, but there are likely people who would be relatively insensitive to price given the value it is possible to create quickly using a tool like Lasso. You might also consider eventually discounting licenses for not-for-profit and educational institutions as their business model is not so much about creating cash value that can offset a high cost for tools.

by Brad Lindsay, 09 February 2011

"'Open source' software is software whose code is open to anyone interested in viewing and changing the 'inside' of a working piece of software, while returning any changes to the group for inclusion in the software for the benefit of all."

I want to disagree with one small part in this definition. "Open source" does not necessarily require one to return their changes or modifications back to the community. The GPL does if you are going to use the software for anything other than personal use, but there are plenty of other licenses that don't require this at all (Apache, MIT, etc.). If Lasso ever does become open sourced in the future, please do not use the GPL but one of the more permissive licenses.


"The Internet Generation is now having children and disappearing on us into child hell (Me, Kyle, Tom, Ke, etc. Who else, btw?)."

I'm expecting my second in July.


"Show me two Lasso programmers in a room who agree on something and I'll show you two Lasso programmers agreeing that beer is better than water (the only time I've ever seen mass agreement)."

I would not be one part of the masses — I just don't like beer. When we're in a restaurant, waiters get confused as my wife has the beer and I get the "girly" drink.

by Mark Palmer, 09 February 2011

Nice article - paid is fine with me. Lasso is a tiny, tiny part of our overall costs.

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