Get what you paid for with open source

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Open innovation

The other day I heard the phrase every open source educator hates to hear: "Well, you get what you pay for..." So, this time in my talk to the group, instead of explaining that 'free' means 'free as in freedom' not 'free of cost', I changed it up. I replied, "You're right you do."

What did I mean? How could I agree with this person? Well, with open source you can always pay to get new features written, but you also can pay with your time to improve the product. If 'free' can mean multiple things, so can 'pay'. When it comes to open source, you have the freedom to improve the product and that means you can pay with your time (reporting bugs, suggesting features, writing documentation, etc), your skills (writing code, debugging software, etc), or your money, to improve the product at any time. If however you just download the product and use it for free, then you don't have the right to complain when it doesn't do what you want.  

A great example of this happened on a Thursday. I got a report from one of our partner libraries that they wanted Koha to function a specific way. I explained that that would be a new feature, and I'd recommend it to the community. I reported an enhancement request in the afternoon. On Friday, when I logged in to our IRC channel, I had a message waiting for me from a developer saying that they had fixed the issue I reported! I went in to Bugzilla, checked out the patch, and tested it. I was able to get the patch to work perfectly, so I gave it my sign off and by Tuesday the following week it has passed quality assurance and was ready for our release manager to review it.

That right there is the beauty of open source and the benefit of 'paying' with your time. We get so used to software that forces us to just deal with the menus and settings they provide that we don't think to suggest new features when we switch to open source, but if you do you might just get what you'd paid for.

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Nicole C. Baratta (Engard) is a Senior Content Strategist at Red Hat. She received her MLIS from Drexel University and her BA from Juniata College. Nicole volunteers as the Director of ChickTech Austin. Nicole is known for many different publications including her books “Library Mashups", "More Library Mashups", and "Practical Open Source Software for Libraries".


Thank you for dealing with that old cliche so efficiently.


What a fantastic little article. It seems so simple when you say it like that, yet I feel many of us can forget that kind of train of thought too often.

Go Open Source!

Andrew, it was a bit of a shock to me when I said it, but then realized that I meant it and thought I should share with everyone :)

In reply to by Andrew Powell (not verified)


Thanks for the great article.

Excellent illustration of the actual flow of value in a collaborative network. In particular, how in-kind contributions can make the bulk of the economic transactions in an open environment.

I'll make sure to use this example, and your perspective, the next time I'm explaining open source economics.


Of course, the phrase in question dates to far before free software was available, and fails to take into account any but commercial products. Of course, even then, with many a commercial product what was really being paid for was best described by another term of the era, "snake oil".

I would challenge anybody that says "you get what you pay for" to repeat the phrase in front of:

* volunteer soup kitchen
* red cross
* salvation army
* doctors without borders
* the peace corp members

Well, in this case you were able to come up with a favourable answer to the classical observation "you get what you pay for".

I want to emphasise however that this favourable outcome materialised only because someone else was able and willing to implement the new feature. Which is of course a central characteristic of what Open Source is all about.

The outcome *can* be a lot less favourable however, and in many cases it is. Less favourable conditions set in whenever:

(a) the feature requested isn't considered "interesting" by the developers who basically want to spend the time they put in (their own time !) on stuff they think is interesting (think: KDE Desktop's galloping featuritis; also many of the Kxxxx applications that are half-baked, buggy, and second-rate)

(b) the number of developers of the community surrounding a piece of OSS is small compared to the difficulty of the codebase and the complexity of the feature requests (think the OSS statistics package "R", the OSS version of which has lousy debugging support, can't take advantage of multiple processors, and is weak when it comes to file-based processing, whereas its commercialised fork is quite strong in those areas. In this case you pay people to do nasty, exhausting, complex, and boring work ... that is totally worth the money when you need it)

(c) the coders feel that the requested feature isn't worthwhile, or even desirable (think Gnome project, support for dated hardware in Linux, )

Community support of OSS _may_ work fabulously, and then again it _may_ be absolutely lousy. You can't tell what it's going to be until you gain some experience with that particular community.

So err ... the observation "you get what you pay for" can be totally wrong, or completely on the mark. Lets not be too dogmatic here.

"I want to emphasise however that this favourable outcome materialised only because someone else was able and willing to implement the new feature...
The outcome *can* be a lot less favourable however, and in many cases it is. Less favourable conditions set in whenever: "

"(a) the feature requested isn't considered "interesting" by the developers..."

"(b) the number of developers ... is small compared to the difficulty of the codebase..."

"(c) the coders feel that the requested feature isn't worthwhile, or even desirable..."

In other words, no different than commercial software in these respects.

In reply to by Golodh (not verified)

@Bernardo Verda

Yes and (in ways that matter) No.

The mechanism is similar but the criteria that make a feature "interesting" for developers are radically different.

As in: with commercial software developers and hobbyists have no say. It's management that decides, and they go by things like profitability and whether or not a feature is relevant for a product.

Take e.g. MS Visio. There is no FOSS tool that even comes close to its quality.
Take MS Visual C++. For all its warts, there's no FOSS tool that offers comparable debugging facilities (and certainly not GDB or KDEVELOP).
Take the Wolfram / Maple symbolic maths and Matlab numeric math packages. They beat Sage, Scilab, and Octave hands down.
Take Esri's Mapinfo GIS package. It's horribly expensive, but there's no comparable FOSS package because it's too hard to develop and there just aren't enough people able and willing to do it.
Take Total Commander for Windows ... it's so much better than any FOSS two-pane file manager, and has been for years. But there are no takers to keep 'mc' up to speed.
Finally take MS WIndows. It's innards are admittedly appalling, but its user interface is polished and it very very rarely malfunctions when you're just running desktop applications. Compare that with KDE which has diverted enormous resources into producing a fancy "rethinking the desktop" experience that nobody asked them for and added a raft of redundant and second-rate "mee-too" applications, and still hasn't got all the basic stuff working because it wants to try something new every so often.

In all these cases, if your time is worth money (which admittedly excludes hobbyists) the commercial variant is more than worth its price. Simply because there aren't enough developers to really polish the software ... or they have more interesting things to do.

In reply to by Bernardo Verda (not verified)

You're right, it does totally depend on the open source project, but trying to contribute (pay) doesn't cost anything but a little bit of time and it might end spectacularly. One thing I teach folks is that you have to evaluate the community around the open source software you're looking to use and decide if it's strong, open and responsive. In the case of the example I mention, Koha has an amazingly receptive community and awesome people using the software. So contributing in the form of bug reports, or time, or money will get you what you want.

In reply to by Golodh (not verified)

In the early days of the PC, WordPerfect functioned magnificently: they had free, toll-free tech support that 1) took bug reports and fixed them and sent you new disks to check it out; 2) took feature suggestions and very often incorporated them (at least the ones I suggested) and again, sent new disks to check out; they were sensitive particularly to unexpected results or complaints about awkward access to commands or poorly worded command choices. I must have received 20 or so updated versions due to my tech support calls and they were proud to state that free tech support was a tool for them to improve the software. Such strong and responsive customer support is not just possible in open source--it was once a major part of a business plan of a for-profit company. Unfortunately, the closed nature of Windows allowed MS to create obstructions in the Windows API for competing software and made the transition to Windows slow for WP. I still use it, albeit in WinXP in a VirtualBox VM.

Brilliant article! I agree wholeheartedly on this matter! I am glad that I do indeed GET what I PAY for!....(Bug reporting and feedback!)

Compare that to payed software... Your request and all your effort would be roughly the same (or even more). On the suppliers side there would be a lot more actions.

If you think about the tree-swing cartoon, I bet the effort on all sides would be much more resulting in a more expensive solution with less satisfaction.

I discovered a mapping Application called QlandkarteGT and needed to contact the developer for a bit of hand holding in the setup, (try that with MS) not only did I get some help in making my version the most current but Oliver asked me to send him a couple of maps from my SouthernHemisphere location. I up loaded my maps and sent him the link. He discovered that some changes needed to be made to his program to make it work for me, in Australia, (Southern Hemisphere). Then he said he had made my maps contiguous and built in some accelerators as well. The resulting file was a GeoTiff of 4Gb in size which works amazingly fast in my netbook with 2Gb RAM. Outstanding value. How do you put a price on the generous spirit of OpenSource?

"How do you put a price on the generous spirit of OpenSource?"

I love that quote!!

In reply to by Andrew Greig (not verified)

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