Who can afford Open Source?


update 2012 01 18 12:45 GMT +1: I have realized only now, reading the comments, that there is one more reason after Francesco’s outburst that isn’t immediately clear but makes certain replies a bit less valid. Unlike what happens with lots of successful FOSS products, Francesco’s software is something that is absolutely useless outside Italy, even if it were localized, so his market is much smaller than that for something like Linux, apache, etc… simply because he implements specific procedures that only exist, in that format, inside italian schools, because they must be compliant with italian laws etc…

A couple of months ago I published, in the Italian version of this website, a complaint about sissiWeb, an italian proprietary software for school administration. The gist of that complaint was that:

  • the official sissiWeb brochure explicitly says that its Web interface will work everywhere…

  • but the official sissiWeb documentation explains that yes, Firefox won’t work, unless you install an extension… which is the one that runs Internet Explorer inside Firefox, something that isn’t written in the sissiWeb manual

this would be news in and by itself (and in fact, I wrote a whole article about it), but the purpose of this page is something else. When Francesco, the developer of schoolAdmin another management software for Italian schools, wrote back to me to explain that his product is truly cross-platform, he also explained why he feels he can’t afford to make schoolAdmin Free/Open Source Software. With his permission, here is what he wrote, followed by a few questions from me to the whole FOSS community:

My software company is very small, but I have almost 30 years of programming experience (I’m 41 years old, and started coding when I was 13). I make a living with programming and ICT consulting. However, since 2010, consulting opportunities have hugely diminished because of the crisis, so I decided to produce software for a bigger market than the one I had worked in until that year. It took me one year to write schoolAdmin, with help from two teacher friends, finding the time between paid work and family “duties” (I have a 3 years old daughter), and I believe I have realized a product that is quite different from those you can find online. The feature I strive the most to offer is usability which (in my personal opinion) is exactly what is missing from competing products.

I adore Free/Open Source Software (Marco: schoolAdmin is a *AMP/Java application). However, I also believe that [in order to develop it] you must either have a big organization that supports the development of that software, or be yourself a big company that can afford to make money also in other ways.

The reason why I asked Francesco permission to publish his outburst is to stimulate the whole FOSS community to share thoughts and experiences on this topic, to find out how general the problem he signals is in 2012. Personally, I still remember hearing, during a Linux Day in Rome almost ten years ago, somebody commenting a talk about the FOSS used in, and developed by, the Bank of Italy asking to himself: “so, in order to develop FOSS you must belong to a big organization?”

What do you think? Do you agree with Francesco? What is your experience in similar cases? How general is Francesco’s conclusion? Besides, do you too, think that current FOSS products for schol management lack usability?

Thanks in advance to all who will share their thoughts in the comments!

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