Can An "App Store" Be The Solution to Funding Open Source Desktop Applications?

I’ve been thinking a lot about open source lately, and wondering if there are alternative business models that could make it sustainable. This “app store” idea is one possibility.

Motivation

I always prefer using an open source application if I can find one that meets my needs. I am uneasy spending money on closed source solutions to any of my problems.

It’s not the money that’s the issue. With an open source application I am more confident that there is no ill-intentioned code, and I can believe that even if development stalls, a sufficiently large user base will result in the application getting patches and other needed maintenance work, so that I can continue using it.

Closed source programs often use proprietary file formats to strengthen the moat they have around the market. This prevents me from moving across programs easily, and can result in loss of data in some cases. Open source projects don’t care about moats, and try to be compatible with as many formats as possible. This is a huge benefit for users.

Unfortunately, the flip side of open source is that it’s often “free as in beer” too, which means there are almost no funds for sustained development. The quality and usability of the application often suffers as a result. There is only so much unpaid or barely-paid open source developers and project maintainers can do.

One segment of software where open source projects can fund their development successfully is software that run on servers. In that case, offering a paid hosted version is natural and can result in a steady flow of cash for the developers. See Plausible Analytics and Taiga.io for example.

For environments where software is installed locally, such as desktop operating systems, an “application store” could provide such a system for generating funds for a project.

The Idea

The idea is to create an application store to significantly increase the appeal of open source applications for end users, and collect funds in exchange for some convenience and support.

Here’s how the store might work:

  • The store would present applications in a modern and user-oriented way.
  • The app store would have an integrated installer, so that an application can be installed in a single click.
  • Applications would be “sold” even though the license would remain unchanged from the original code.
  • The store would provide some level of support to buyers as a benefit.
  • The store would use part of the funds to promote the products in the app store.
  • The projects would receive funds to support their continuing development.

In a nutshell, the goal is to maximize the appeal of open source software to non-technical users by focusing on user experience. By doing this, we can expand the number of users (buyers) through promotion and PR, and therefore increase the funding for the projects.

By the same token, the application store would relieve the open source developers from some of the less enjoyable tasks, like providing support to end users, and self-promotion.

A Virtuous Feedback Loop

The hope with this idea is that better funded open source projects are more likely to respond to the needs of the users. This in turn brings more users and more funds, which opens the possibility of doing even more great things in FOSS.

However it may not be enough to hope. It’s possible the application store would have to be selective about which applications it offers. It’s important that users perceive the store as a purveyor of quality apps. A bad experience with a few apps and the user will not bother with the store anymore, nor will they recommend it to others.

Setting minimum user experience requirements puts a demand on projects, but I think it would result in a healthier open source ecosystem. Have a look at the Plausible site and product screenshots. Does Plausible look sharp and highly usable because it is well-funded, or is it that way because the developers know they won’t make as much money if they don’t “look the part”?

Like the chicken and the egg you can debate endlessly about which came first, the point is they go together. You want users to part with their money? Spend your resources so your application looks sharp, is easy to use, and doesn’t waste your user’s time.

This sounds harsh but the key to accepting this demand on projects is to think of how much funds could be available to open source projects if many non-technical users turned to FOSS for their needs. This can only happen with strong UX in the store and the applications.

With all of that, I can imagine a world where such an app store is well established, widely distributed among end users and large numbers of developers are working part-time or even full-time on open source applications.

What About “Cheaters”?

If the application store puts a price tag on open source licensed software, what prevents someone from simply bypassing the store and downloading the source or even the binaries on their own?

Nothing.

First, there are no “cheaters”. If someone can’t or won’t pay, it’s absolutely within their rights to obtain the software outside the store, and that’s perfectly fine.

I don’t think that means the idea can’t work. Remember that the key is to broaden the pool of FOSS users far outside the world of tech-savvy folks. This means many of these people may prefer to part with a few dollars than venture outside the safety of a well regarded store.

It will also be critical to make the benefits of using the store meaningful and the prices reasonable enough that a sufficient number of users don’t bother to get applications outside the store. For some users, knowing they’ll get some support from the store could be enough justification.

Can it Work?

I wrote above that I could imagine this working. The truth is my imagination is a well-oiled machine that can make many improbable things come true.

I do think FOSS on desktop is stuck in a local maxima, and donations are not enough to truly alter the landscape.

The only way to make open source sustainable, let alone thrive, is to make it attractive to regular people, yell about it on the rooftops, and stick a price tag on it.

Olivier Forget

Los Angeles, USA
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Aerospace Engineer turned sofware developer and bootstrappin' entrepreneur.