This piece is co-written by Soh Wan Wei and Julian Lim.

‘Open source’ is a very simple concept. However, most people have the misconception that “free” cannot be profitable.

These days, when we think about open source, we generally refer to open source software. With software, open source allows anyone to inspect, modify and enhance it.

Linux and Android are two of the biggest examples of open source software. As competitors to Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s iOS, Android and Linux have proven that open source can be as profitable as their proprietary cousins.

But, free does not necessarily mean unprofitable.

The difference between both types of software lie simply in the business model. Microsoft, in particular, makes money every time you buy a software license for Windows. On the surface, Android has no way to generate money.

So, how does the concept of open source make a profit?

Free as in “Freedom”, not as in “Free Beer”

According to the Free Software Foundation and Richard Stallman, there is a need to distinguish between the two types of “Free”: “Libre” (Freedom) Vs “Gratis” (Free Beer).

And we quote:

“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software,” borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom, to show we do not mean the software is gratis.”

Indeed, ask any open-source software developer and you will realise that freedom is very important to them. The spirit and power of open source lies in freedom, and not “free” beer.

“Free” does not equate to freemium

Imagine you’re a new software developer looking for investors. Mention to them that the product you’re developing is going to be given away for free makes no business sense. Mention that your product is free up to a limit before consumers have to pay, and you’ve created a model for (potential) success.

This model is known as the freemium model, a portmanteau of “free” and “premium”. As its name suggests, in this model, basic services are provided free of charge and additional features are offered at a premium.

Freemium is popular with many software and game companies. AVG, a software security company, and Riot Games, makers of League of Legends. AVG provides its base anti-virus product for free with payable enhanced protection. League of Legends is free to play but players can purchase optional cosmetics that do not affect the game.

AVG and Riot Games shows that the freemium model can work. There will be many who would only use the base product but there are just as many who are willing to pay for the extras.

However, both companies keep their proprietary source code close to outsiders. They are not open source software companies.

Case in point: Red Hat, a profitable open source company

For an example of a profitable open source company, look no further than Red Hat. Red Hat provides open source software products to businesses

Unlike AVG and Riot Games, the base source code of Red Hat is open source. Like AVG and Riot Games, profitability comes in the additional extras that are provided. For Red Hat, custom features, software support and services and software certifications are the chargeable extras.

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The revenue that Red Hat earned from additional features and subscriptions were profitable enough that IBM acquired the company in 2018.

Companies like Red Hat, AVG and Riot Games show that it is possible to have a profitable model where the base product is free but the additional services are paid for. Yet, this isn’t the full story of why taking the open source route can be profitable.

After all, will anyone pay for the extras if no one knows it exists? Even worse, what if the extras don’t improve the base product by much?

The winning formulae: Adoption

Software live and die by their ability to be used by as wide a group as possible. The most useful software are those that are free.

If a popular product wasn’t free, then far fewer people would use it.

Consider the portable memory war – SD Cards versus Memory Stick. Memory Sticks were proprietary Sony technology. The SD card standard was developed and distributed for free. SD cards and their cousins can now be found in everything from smartphones to digital cameras.

Guess which format is still used today?

Beyond hardware, the best example of the profitability of open source is the battle between the smartphone operating systems – Apple’s iOS versus Google’s Android. Currently, Android enjoys a market share of about 88 per cent compared to iOS’ 11.9 per cent.

In 2016, there were an estimated 2.9 billion smartphones. There will be about five billion smartphones by the end of 2019. With an 88 per cent market share, that adds up to over 4.4 billion Android-powered devices.

How did Android do it?

How Android managed to gain such a commanding position in the market compared to the next major operating system is simply due to the open source nature of Android OS. While iOS is available only on Apple’s iPhone and iPad series, Android is available on over 1,300 brands and 24,000 device models.

From Sony to Samsung, Huawei to HTC, the open source nature of Android allows it to be customized and adapted to each company’s needs.

As the battle between the memory stick formats and mobile operating systems show, an open source format lowers the barriers to entry into technology adoption. In India, an iPhone is roughly US$1,600. The average Android phone is almost a quarter of the price at US$450.

The open source nature of Android allows different manufacturers to adapt to different market conditions.

Yet, a freemium model and access to technology are not the only reasons open source can result in profitability. The final piece of the puzzle has to do with the consequence of large market shares and easy access to software – a wide customer base.

The magic word: “Communities”

As the saying goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

It’s the same with open source software.

It’s all well and good to create software and make it free to use but if a community doesn’t regularly use the software, then who is paying for it?

In the open source world where anyone can inspect and suggest improvements to the source code, the community is what helps to maintain the software. In return, this creates a customer base locked into using the software that is created.

Consider the case of GitHub. GitHub is a place for programmers to keep track of their work but also allow (in the case of public repositories) others to view their work, suggest changes and make improvements.

Many programmers in major technological companies use GitHub as a way to showcase and crowdsource suggestions for their work. What started off as a place for hobbyists and individual programmers to connect has now turned into a platform which major companies are getting in on.

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Microsoft tried to create a competitor to GitHub in the form of CodePlex. With Microsoft’s own engineers eschewing CodePlex for GitHub, Microsoft did what any historical dictator would do when their plans fail – it bought GitHub.

The value of GitHub wasn’t in the products it created. Rather, it was in the community that was using it. Any self-respecting programmer used GitHub to track their work. Any student learning how to code used GitHub to improve. Red Hat, Android, and even the investment bank Goldman Sachs have a GitHub repo.

With constant community interaction, these communities allow for the constant engagement of the user base. This is also one of the reasons why Connectome World places such a huge emphasis on the community — to get, we must first give.

Conclusion: “Free” can be very profitable

Freedom, the Freemium Model, open source access to technology and the creation and sustainment of a community are the secret ingredients to which allow the concept of open source to be profitable.

From Android to Red Hat, there are countless examples of open source models being highly profitable. Far from being an oxymoron, ‘open source’ does not mean ‘unprofitable’.

After all, how else would Microsoft be willing to acquire Github for US$7.5 billion in Microsoft stock?

Photo by Денис Евстратов on Unsplash

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