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Growl now costs $2--and that's just fine

The Mac notification utility shows that open-source software isn't always free. But paying for something useful isn't unreasonable.

Growl logo

Growl, a widely used open-source notification tool that lets Mac OS X applications tell users about events such as incoming instant messages, is no longer free.

And not everybody is happy about that.

Starting with version 1.3, Growl became a $1.99 purchase. Growl developer Chris Forsythe described the changes this way yesterday:

Growl as a paid application allows for good changes. We now have people working on Growl full time. Money earned through purchases in the App Store go directly to benefiting Growl...Without changing to this paid Growl model, Growl would have died off and would no longer be around to use at all. Growl is however still open source.

Carping ensued.

"Hey guys what happened? you embraced the AppStore's dark side? O.o #notGonnaUpdateAnyMore," complained Twitter user unlucio. And Jeremy Randall tweeted, "Hmm @GrowlMac is free, under BSD license, but costs $1.99 from the App Store. Why are you guys charging for open source?"

Any price increase will trigger a certain amount of discontentment, of course. But I'm not in the griping group in this case.

For starters, $2 isn't that much for a genuinely useful utility, and full-time developers need to eat.

Also, there's no requirement that prebuilt, installable versions of open-source software must be free; the Growl source code remains available for anyone who cares to build the software.

The move is the latest example of the struggle to profit, or at least benefit financially, from open-source software. There are several mechanisms: a free foundation with proprietary add-ons, support subscriptions, customization services, and more. Often, though, open-source software is offered for free because it's part of a company's broader agenda--to make its hardware worth paying for, or to undermine a competitor's strength, for example.

The Growl project also launched an upsell effort. Programmers can embed a basic version of Growl notifications called Mist into their software for free, so that those using the software don't have to install it separately. But those who use a Mist-enabled program only get close control over the notifications if they buy the Growl app.

Personally, I'm happy to shell out two bucks. But the prospect provoked three reactions:

First, $2 seems pretty cheap for a personal computer utility. That's funny, because it's exactly the same price as a $2 smartphone app, which seems pretty ordinary to me. Evidently my expectations have been colored by all those years of paying for more expensive PC software.

Second, the migration from free version to App Store version is unpleasant for Growl. You have to download an uninstaller for the old version 1.2.2 before buying and installing version 1.3.x through the App Store. It's not the end of the world, and it looks to be like a one-time annoyance, but it's hardly the seamless experience one might hope for.

Last, why isn't something like Growl built into Mac OS X? Given how many programs rely on Growl, it seems like just the sort of basic centralized resource that Apple would like to add, comparable to spell-check. I've grown accustomed to a centralized notification service with Android, making a mockery of the willy-nilly, stylistically disjointed pop-ups that arrive on my Windows machine every time Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Tweetdeck, Windows Update, Avast antivirus software, or something else wants to get my attention.

Apple could build its own service, of course, but somebody's already done the work, built a software developer kit for programmers, and lined up a lot of customers. So who knows--if Apple shells out a few bucks of its own some day for Growl, maybe Mac users won't have to anymore.