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Radiohead, open source, and the problem with free

After trying out a "pay what you wish" model for its latest album, the band gave up on free. Should open source?

What a short, strange trip it was, but it's now over. With little fanfare, Radiohead has stopped its free promotion of In Rainbows via its "pay whatever the heck you want, we're rich already!" model. The band's manager hardly gave a ringing endorsement to the effort:

This was a solution to a series of issues. I doubt it would work the same way ever again.

Faint praise, indeed.

It's too bad, but perhaps it's not surprising. I paid $20 for my copy (and yes, I have the receipt to prove it) but the music is worth far more to me. It is one of the best albums I've ever heard--I listen to it almost daily. But human nature is to try to get something for nothing, and most Radiohead so-called fans did just that.

Interestingly, this same phenomenon is as true of software/IT as it is of music. Give an IT buyer the option of getting something for nothing, and she will, nine times out of 10. Not because she's evil, but because when it comes time to fork over the cash, it's always easier to retain that which we're not compelled to give up.

This is why, despite my preference for revenue models that don't depend on proprietary extensions to otherwise free software, every successful business model will always rely in part on something proprietary. In the software world, I believe the proprietary hook is best expressed in "proprietary services" that you only get as a paid subscriber. This includes break/fix support, but it's also things like Red Hat Network: services expressed in software but that don't block the use of the core software that customers need to run their businesses.

An overly convenient and semantic distinction? I don't think so. Keeping a database proprietary hurts the customer, but closing off a service that would otherwise expedite development on that database (which development can happen regardless of the tool, with the exact same end result)...this seems acceptable to me.

In an ideal world, customers would pay for value. But we don't. And so it's fair play for vendors to offer convenient excuses to pay for their products. The trick is to ensure that the desire to get paid doesn't end up crippling the ability for customers to maximize value from one's products due to proprietary locks.

To be continued...