The Free Software Foundation has a clear and concise definition of free software – which is tightly connected to what we refer to “open source” with some verbal modifications:
“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” to show we do not mean it is gratis.
My Open Source Experience
A couple of years back I shared my experience after 10 years of being a Linux user. Whilst it was not my initial FOSS expertise per se, it was a turning point in my mindset for several reasons.
First off, I had the full control of everything. Even if I wasn’t aware with what is going on behind the scenes, with the right motivation and tons of time, there was a way out. Even if it takes a countless number of formatting the hard drive and starting all over, or restoring multiple waypoints of a certain version of my stack.
Second, I wasn’t able to afford all of the software that was available and popular back then. Windows wasn’t cheap, and then there was the Microsoft Office suite, and various audio/video players, and even the IDEs or compilers I’ve been using to learn coding. I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that I may be a license violator or a pirate, and at the same time my software suite would have cost close to 6 months of the average salary of a local Joe.
It was exciting, it was new, it was liberating. It’s been a way of living ever since.
Later on I had intimate experience with different closed platforms and languages, and I focused on Java. Then I did some Python and PHP, and now I’m actively involved with WordPress development, as well as numerous small and medium-sized projects built on top of Open programming standards or languages.
The “Free Beer” Phenomena
Back in the days when “Open Source” was still unpopular as a concept (or people couldn’t care less about that), I wasn’t entirely aware of the business model behind doing anything with open source. After all, the cashier at the store doesn’t cash commits or product patches for food, nor does my landlord. And yet, I had a few acquaintances from user groups and conferences who were actively spending 100% of their time on open source work and earning a good living.
I spent some time digging around and exploring the financial bit behind Red Hat, Mozilla and other players in the market. Later on a dream (or a reality interpretation) of mine was crushed once I realized that code itself does not matter at all, and there are other significant factors as adoption, community, solving actual business problems based on ROI and so on.
And eventually, there are two main types of open source projects:
- Those that get funding, provide premium services and generally have various sources of revenue in order to survive, grow, and provide great experience
- Those that eventually get poorly supported and abandoned at some point of time
In other words, even if “karma” and “common good” mean nothing to you, there is no way for a project to survive without your involvement – be it time, or financial assistance.
Let’s repeat again. If you don’t give back a good chunk of your time to a project and a community or pay the ones in charge, there is no future in that project.
The Bigger Picture of the WordPress Community
For what is worth, the WordPress ecosystem is one of the most open ones. I’m not talking about the community here (which is still fairly closed) or the WordPress.org project, but being able to use the platform and the variety of plugins or themes is completely free.
And the majority of the community is cool, gives away a ton, shares free resources and so forth.
But funnily enough, unlike with other communities, even though WordPress powers over 24% of the Internet, have you seen many large WordPress companies? Or even a medium-sized ones (as compared to many other dev studios)?
There are a tiny number of companies over 50 people, a few in the 20-50 range, a fair number of 8-20 people ones – and the rest are basically freelancers and small agencies of 2-5 people.
That’s not necessarily bad – unless you travel to a small local WordCamp outside of the US where plenty of people dream about a WP job that could pay their bills. And then you visit a bunch of Java or .NET conferences with companies shipping a department or two (20-40 people each) overseas for a conference that charges $800 entry fee per person. Or a Python/Ruby conference with consultants and even freelancers being appreciated for their contributions, supported by various companies or simply charging more than enough for their skills and efforts.
I won’t dig into the hole that no one openly talks about, but you have to live in a bubble should you not see that – similarly to claiming that poverty does not exist, or there is an infinite supply of water and gas for everyone and wars are only seen in books and movies.
WordPress people are underrated, under-educated (due to the lack of any legit training/certification program in place), there’s a lot of noise that gives praise to marketing as compared to product quality or actual skills. That affects the quality of the plugin ecosystem which is the backbone of each and every CMS, and most enterprise businesses run away since they have a hard time to find a stable infrastructure or a good development team.
It’s a complex problem that could easily be solved (rapidly improving quality and life standard) over the next year or two with the right motivation, which is not quite in place though. The closest thing to that right now is the WP Developers Club.
But other than some internal issues, lack of training or a good strategy from the key players in the market, users do not help with the natural growth – at all.
WordPress Users Miss the Point
Using generalizations is obviously a shortcut to defining the label without meaning to blame the good an honest WordPress users. Unfortunately, the space is crowded with people following a number of false assumptions, such as:
- WordPress is free, so I have to get everything for free
- If this plugin/theme is out there, it should work exactly as I want – regardless of whether it’s free, or not
- If the “famous 5-minute install” takes 5 minutes for an entire site, everything else should take hours, days at most
- Any change to anything I have should cost a few bucks at most
- Since I can install WordPress through cPanel, then everything is extremely easy
- Free plugin authors deserve a 1-star rating if the plugin does not do what I need
- People in Facebook and support forums must solve my problems for free, immediately, regardless of the problem
- Plugin/theme authors should set up my site and configure everything for me for free
One of Donald Trump’s statements hit the industry big time:
And remember the $5 billion website[?], 5 billion we spent on a website, and to this day it doesn’t work. A $5 billion dollar website[?]. I have so many website[s]. I have them all over the place. I hire people, they do a website. It costs me $3.
What Should Both Freelancers and Users Learn
For everyone with a successful business track record capable to produce high quality and being knowledgeable in the WordPress field – I salute you. I would urge you to blog and share more and help the large ecosystem since that could only happen from the inside out.
As for everyone else, here is my advice for you.
- WordPress is free. However, building solutions on top of WordPress may not be free. And the fact that the largest brands are investing millions in their web platforms is not a coincidence, but a necessity.
- Owning a WordPress website by itself does not solving problems. Solving problems with the right business model is what makes a venture successful.
- There is so much more to building a web solution other than installing WordPress and activating a bunch of free plugins.
- You must appreciate the work that others have provided to you for free. That’s right, you must appreciate it, or don’t use it – period.
- Give back to WordPress – other than code, there is also documentation, support, translations and much more. You can also sponsor a WordCamp, speak at a meetup, and help your local role models grow your local community.
- Support your favorite plugins and their authors. Remember – if no one takes care of them, they’ll have to find a “real job” and stop doing stuff for free.
- Think about yourself first. As they say – love yourself first before you love someone else. Your stability is required in order for you to start giving back.
- However, give back – actively. It’s the basis of the survival of the mankind, and the best way to support, help, and inspire other people.
- Find ways to monetize your free work. Don’t deal with scams, but think of way that would allow you to use your contributions for the common good and get paid for them so that you can give back more. There are plenty of ways to do that – and many people don’t do that so you’re one of the “chosen few”.
- Opensource as much as you can. Embed that in your mindset so that, when working on a project, you think about components or best practices that you could share through free software, blog posts, case studies and so forth.
- Reuse code and contribute to other projects. Instead of building the yet another slider or a gallery, find a good one and make it even better. WordPress is a product of thousands of contributors working together, and a lifetime would not be sufficient for reproducing those results and experience by a single person or even a small team.
- Accept collaboration and contributions. Embrace the spirit of working together, learning together, peer reviews, exploring new technologies and sharing advice and experience.
- Always keep learning. Extend your skill set, invest in books and courses, discover new technologies or methodologies, solve complex problems and become a better and more skillful person day after day.
- Mentor people and support your local community. Don’t let shady, greedy and unworthy people take over and plague it. Find a role model that is worth supporting or become one – a true, honorable leader with clear vision, admirable experience, commitment and dedication to the cause.
Living the Open Source life is not hard, but it requires a certain level of mindset adjustment. Transparency and sharing isn’t just a software concept and it could be easily applied in every aspect of life, making you a better and successful person.