As promised, I’m responding to Matt’s comments at PressNomics on selling WordPress (WP) plugins and laying out my philosophy and beliefs on the subject.
Commercial plugins help or hurt WP?
I’m summarizing, but during his interview, Matt essentially said that designs have more value in being rare, charging for them makes them rarer, so it makes sense. On the flip side, plugins have more value being ubiquitous, charging for them makes them less so, so it doesn’t make sense.
I agree that plugins have more value being ubiquitous. We should strive to make plugins (or any code for that matter) more available and accessible. I mean, I was able to learn Perl and PHP in my teens by hacking on freely available open source code. I want the next generation to have that same opportunity. But I think there’s very little risk of losing that. When I was hunting for Perl scripts at cgi-resources.com, there were upsells to paid versions with additional features and support. And that was over a decade ago. The business model of giving away a free package but offering a commercial package with more features and support is ancient in web years; yet I’m pretty sure that free open source is as healthy as it has ever been. I think a very strong argument can be made that business helps the proliferation of free open source software more than it hurts.
In an ideal world, all code would be free open source and all developers would still be able to pay their bills. But that’s a utopian dream. In this world, there needs to be a balance between free and commercial open source. Give away as much as possible while still being able to pay the bills.
Charging for SaaS is better than charging for plugins
Matt explained that he believes it’s better to offer a free plugin and charge for a service (SaaS) that the plugin connects to (like Akismet & VaultPress) rather than charge for the plugin itself. I disagree. Giving away a plugin that doesn’t work without a paid SaaS subscription isn’t exactly a great contribution to the free open source community. In fact, I’d argue that the free plugin + commercial plugin model is better. I mean, in the SaaS model the bulk of the code is private. You can release little bits and pieces but not the whole thing. If you released everything, it would be too easy for competitors to setup shop.
With the free plugin + commercial plugin model, when you buy an open source plugin, all the code is available to be reviewed, learned from, and in the case of GPL, you’re free to use the code in your own GPL projects. Plus, you have access to a working, free plugin.
Bad idea to build a business on a feature that could be rolled into WP core
When people’s livelihoods depend on selling a certain plugin that could be incorporated into WP core, Matt explained that it becomes a bit of a dilemma for the core team. He gave the specific example that if WP core decided to incorporate some kind of form features it might hurt Gravity Forms.
This extends to business in general. It’s a bad idea to build a business on a feature that could be built-into the platform. I think it’s generally good advice, but as with most business advice, I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule. If you recognize the risk of the platform incorporating the feature, but the investment is minimal, it might still be worth it.
A non-WP example of this is S3Stat, which was built by Expat Software to satisfy a need for their clients, then with a little development offered as a service for $5/month and set it on autopilot. That was 2007. Now, five years later, Amazon Web Services still has not integrated this feature into their platform, and the founder of S3Stat has been living off the income for the past three years, all the while bootstrapping other ventures.
As for Gravity Forms, I’ll let the founder, Carl Hancock speak to that.
I suggest heading over to the comments of Tony Perez’s post on this subject to read opinions from plenty of others including responses from Matt.