The costs of Free

Recently, Michael Torbert, developer of the popular All-In-One SEO Pack (AIOSEOP) plugin, released a major upgrade to, among various other bugfixes and feature enhancements, future-proof the plugin against scaling issues. I worked with him on beta-testing the upgrade, and found it to be flawless. I was one of many, but gauging by the reaction of a few, there were not enough of us who did the testing.

Last Saturday morning I was motivated to write a helpful, if but a tad acerbic, tutorial on what to do next after the one-click upgrade. It got plenty of views and a few thank-yous, and we did come across a few genuine cases where the meta information was not being retrieved properly. Michael addressed those issues in subsequent upgrades and bugfixes. There have been reactions of ill will: some level-headed, some absolutely histrionic, but for the most part, people seem to have moved on with their lives and either accepted that this was a hiccup, or have chosen a different SEO plugin for their sites.

I would be nothing if not the type to find a teachable moment. When I started blogging six long years ago I didn’t worry about all that “SEO crap,” and to an extent, I still don’t. After two years of hiding from search engines using robots.txt, I’ve decided to open the site up again following my growing exposure on Twitter, and rejoining the WordPress community this year through my attendance at WordCamp Mid-Atlantic. I wanted to clean up my titles really well, and pull in meta information, and I want to do it using simple WordPress code that I cooked up myself. It just wasn’t happening. I was producing some wacky stuff that would work on some views but not in others, so I took the plunge and used AIOSEOP.

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), comes with different license flavors, from the “permissive free licenses” (BSD or MIT, for example) to the copyleft GPL. Software under these licenses power a large portion of the web. They have made development easy for new and seasoned programmers a like, and have brought people together in ways that proprietary software really has not. Free, however, comes with costs too. Sadly, this concept is beyond the grasp of some people. The largest cost for Free is time. No matter how well-studied, well-researched, and optimized the user interface is for a FLOSS product, there will always be someone, somewhere, with a question. That’s why documentation is very important for FLOSS, just as it is important for a piece of proprietary software.

The difference in user support for FLOSS vs. proprietary is that in the latter case, companies have someone on staff to do the support and documentation, and that the costs to hire this person (salary, benefits, insurance, taxes) are built into the pricing model for the product. With the former, volunteers have to offer their time and effort, with no reasonable expectation for direct compensation from the project leaders. The same applies for development, testing, and just about every phase of the software’s life cycle. If the cost of FLOSS is time and effort, or “sweat equity,” then, the more people participate in the process, the cheaper it becomes for everyone.

Let’s take as example the AIOSEOP issue. Michael did his damned best to solicit testers for the beta version of the upgrade. I was one of them, and like I said earlier, it appears there weren’t enough people who did the testing because we all did fine with the beta versions. Had more people signed up and taken the process seriously, perhaps the issues that required version 1.6.4 may have been stemmed from the start. Or not. Whether it’s FLOSS or proprietary, there will always be an aberrant outlier that will pose a challenge to a software project. There are different factors that can affect this, such as adverse synergies with some other plugins.

The success of a FLOSS project lies in the ability to grow a community from which to solicit feedback and support. In this, Linux, WordPress, and whole slew of other projects have succeeded, while a few others have not. In the case of AIOSEOP, I’ve decided that I will contribute a few hours a week to writing support articles and tutorials. This is time out of my life, just as it has been time out of Michael’s life to address an exotic bug and fix it.

Perhaps the greatest, unintended cost associated with FLOSS is that, as with anything that is given away for free, it tends to breed a culture of entitlement. Because the product is so easy to come by, because there is such an enormous community behind a project, a large number of people remain incurious about what they are using. I doubt the developers of any project set out to write a piece of software whose users cared nothing about, except of course, to meet their own ends. And yet, the sense of entitlement from users of free software rivals those of some in the political arena. People need to realize that without their active participation in the testing of FLOSS, we wouldn’t get anywhere. The costs in time for testing out permutations of plugins, or different server environments, would be astronomical were it not for the willing participation of those who have an interest in seeing a particular piece of software succeed.

And this is where I am at great odds with the loudest critics of Michael Torbert and the AIOSEOP 1.6.x upgrade cycle. Too many of them have let out the pitchforks and torches without performing their due dillegence. For those who have, far too few have been gracious enough to keep the criticism to a minimum as they waited patiently for an answer, while others ran screaming for the hills in anticipation of the end of their paltry little world. Where the hell were they when beta testing was going on? If this plugin were the lifeblood of their business, they cannot just sit back idly while others tested the fidelity of the product they so rely on. Had they been active participants during beta testing, version 1.6.4’s bugfixes may have been avoided all together.

FLOSS, like I have been stressing through this article, will be nothing without the community that grows around it. This is not so much an condemnation of current attitudes; this is my way of saying “you’re all invited.”

5 thoughts on “The costs of Free”

  1. You’re quite right, and I’d go so far to say that it extends to products/services that are technically not free but don’t cost a lot either. My own Web host has a status page for each current system problem/issue, and where there’s a problem, there’s someone complaining that this outage is costing him his livelihood – whether or not his particular account is even affected by that outage. The obvious question – if your sole source of income is a Web site, why are you settling for a cheap $7 shared-hosting account? – is not so obvious to them. And, in fact, it’s now become shtick: folks come in specifically to mock the woe-is-me posters.

  2. I’m glad you though my lost was historic.
    I agree there are hidden costs of “free” both for the developer and the uses. Developers deserve to be supported and rewarded for their contributions. Users should realize that it’s unreasonable to make demands on someone already providing something for free. And they should expect some downtime, problems, or delays. That’s the hidden cost.

    You’ll notice I didn’t demand a fix from Michael and I also supported his placement of an ad in the plugin dashboard.

    However, there are several points I disagree with. First of all the problems with the AIOSEO update NEEDED to be publicized. Michael had known about the issue for at least two days before my post and yet only a select few end users were aware a problem existed.

    Alerting Michael to the issue doesn’t help the thousands that had already upgraded. And, as I mentioned earlier and found out later, he already knew there was an issue.

    I realize you said this post isn’t a condemnation of current attitudes but both in this post and in the comments on my post you did criticize me so I hope this comment isn’t too far off topic.

  3. Ben, I took a while before I responded as I honestly try not to inflame or escalate an argument. I was pretty confrontational in the comments to your post. It is not you personally whom I aimed to criticize, it was the approach. For you to have called it “extremely dangerous,” while well within your rights, was not what I would call helpful. I’ve said this in your comments, same here.

    First, whatever “damage” the change in the no-index issues would have been fixed on the next spidering. Second, it was human error, not an act of malice. Third, more than a few didn’t actually go through the upgrade process properly and panicked over their SEO settings, and a post like what you wrote merely threw gas unto a fire.

    I don’t disagree that there was a need for it to be publicized. I just disagree with your style.

  4. I think being in the position to help with beta-testing is a rare ‘freedom’. You need to have the mental room and capacity to spend time away from your own personal interests and joys. Me personally, I would only go and beta-test if I were already involved with the software beyond the case of simple use (for example if I had modified it or communicated with the developer). I’ve been a computer user and hobby programmer for almost 20 years now but beta-testing I’ve never done.

    But then, I also don’t read newspapers ;-).

  5. Hehe Xen. In my personal experience, 60-70% (at least, significantly more than half) of beta testers are young, enthusiast guys and gals. Often high school students, which simply love a piece of software or love to be “part” of it. This happened in a lot of communities I worked for and that were launching new features; and I am speaking of communities that were completely different from each other in topic and in “spirit”.

    Anyhow, another consistent part of beta testers is made of mature people that actually want to use bleeding edge technology before anybody else. Beta testing a product about SEO could give you some advantage against your competitors, if the developer is doing a clean enough job also in beta phase.

    Sadly, there is also a small group of people that join beta testing phase because they are working on a possible competitor to the project; I have seen this happening a few times, also recently in communities surrounding smartphone application development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>