Quick intro to myself - I'm an engineer at a big Unix company during the day (working on vaguely Open Source stuff), and I've written a couple of small PalmOS utilities in my spare time, which I released under the GPL. I haven't bothered adding them in here because they're really only small one-developer utilities, so there doesn't seem to be much point. Is this wrong?
Anyway, I've started a long-term experiment alongside my free software work. When I originally started the experiment, I didn't mean it as such - I meant it for real, but my life has changed in such a way since then that the goal is no longer 'real'. The experiment is, approximately, as follows:
- I have put some significant time and effort, and some small but real amounts of money into my PalmOS development, in order to produce free software. I am (so far) strictly a spare time free software developer, so this stuff is, in effect, my hobby.
- I have no intention (again, so far) of founding a free software company or moving from my nice new job to a risky job at a free software company.
- How can I make some money with this? Not serious money, but it would be nice to make enough that my 'investment' is repaid with more than a nice ego-boost and a lot of e-mails from people who haven't read my documentation. When I started this, I wasn't earning very much in my day-job, and I wasn paying quite a lot of rent, so it was a serious thing to try to get some return on my investment. Since then, I have moved job and house and I no longer have the kind of money pressure I had before. In some ways, that makes the experiment 'purer' according to the rules I would like to apply.
- I do not want to do anything as serious as moving job to a free software company or trying to found my own, or anything like that. I want some way, with minimum effort beyond that I already put into my coding, to make some money back from it. All I'm really after is covering my costs, particularly since my employer would probably be a bit worried if I was making real money from free software outside my job.
- Once the experiment has produced some serious results, I would like to document it, since I would imagine there are hundreds if not thousands of free software developers out there who are in a similar position (although they may need the money) who would appreciate an easy way to get some.
I have no problem with putting an effort into this. My problem is that I want to put the effort into the coding (and the support that goes with it) and find some low-maintainence way of covering my costs along with it. There are a couple of things which make my situation atypical and which therefore may affect the experiment: I'm in the UK, which has a couple of effects - there are quite a few money generation methods which are not available to me, like PayPal, and there are extra costs I have over US hackers like bandwidth - almost every 'net user in the UK is still paying per minute for access, and there is significant on-line time associated with this kind of activity. I'm also writing for PalmOS, which has some different dynamics from (for example) Linux as a platform - as an example, most PalmOS software is shareware or outright payware, so users may be more willing to pay voluntary donations since they are used to paying for software anyway.
So far, I would pick a figure of about £150 as my accrued costs which I'd like to cover. This is made up of attending a PalmOS developers conference last year (which I took a day off work to attend) for which I paid around £120, although I did win £250 worth of palmtop at the conference, and buying a copy of the O'Reilly book 'Palm Programming: The Developers Guide', plus incidental bits. I have been lucky that for most of the last year (since I released my first PalmOS program) I have managed to get home Internet access without paying for it by the minute, so I can't count that in, but for many non-US developers that would be added.
I've got two ways to earn money set up at the moment - voluntary donations and banner ads on my website. Although I set up the donation system a couple of months ago I only 'announced' it a few days ago. Since then, I've had around 15 views of the page on which I explain the system, and no payments - I do wonder how many payments I may have received if I'd have set this up a year ago, since I reckon I have had over 10,000 downloads of my software since then. The way I've set up the system, I have registered one of my programs with PalmGear which is, as far as I know, the biggest third-party Palm site on the web. The software is still marked as freeware in their database, but it is also in their shareware database with a $5 value. Unfortunately, they take a cut and there is a minimum payment threshold ($100), but that really doesn't matter unless I actual receive any payments :-)
The banner ads have so far earned me less than $10 - I am using Contentzone, almost at random, to serve the ads (remember - minimum effort), and although my site generates an average of about 4000 page views per month, the payout isn't huge. I'm sure there are better ways of doing it, but I do not want to manage the individual banners myself, and I don't quite get enough hits to use a more serious agency - most seem to want 5000 hits minimum per month, and although I got over that in August (and I'm not sure why) my average remains around 4000 hits per month.
The other thing I've come up with, but not set up yet, is Amazon (or Amazon-style) associates stuff on my website. One thing I like about that kind of thing (which also applies, although less 'purely', to the banner ads) is that users/supporters can give me money directly without it costing them anything. They can make a conscious decision to support me by clicking through on my page and buying something they would have bought anyway. On the other hand, Amazon is kind of out-of-favour right now, but I'd really prefer to do this kind of thing with sites in the UK (or at least sites which ship to the UK as a local ship). Unfortunately, most UK-native sites are pretty behind on that kind of thing, so they're mainly not of much use to me.
I've had a look through the 7 models presented by Eric Raymond in The Magic Cauldron and while most of them seem to apply to companies rather than spare-time developers, here are my responses to the suggested models:
- I don't have any commercial software to make money from.
- I don't have any hardware to make money from. I don't have anything but my free software.
- The software I have is pretty small (but useful) and there is no way for me to sell a service based on it.
- Too much non-coding work - and who the hell is going to buy an accessory for a PalmOS phone dialler?
- I only have free software - I have no intention of actually selling software.
- No brand to a collection of utilities - and nothing to sell on top of that brand anyway.
- No content in utilities.
So, what do y'all think about this? Is it worth my trying, or am I going over to the dark side by trying to cover my costs on this stuff? Is it possible for me to succeed? Got any good suggestions? Is it worth my writing this up for other spare-time developers? Is this long enough to be written up as an article rather than a diary entry? Does anyone really care?